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Advocacy Groups Urge FDA Changes to Safeguard U.S. Food Supply

The Obama administration should appoint a senior food safety official within the Food and Drug Administration as a first step toward safeguarding the U.S. food supply, two advocacy groups said on Wednesday.

The responsibility for food safety currently is divided up among federal agencies including the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitoring disease outbreaks.

A report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation urged the appointment of a senior FDA official to take charge of food safety as an interim step toward fixing the much-criticized U.S. food safety system.

The groups said in the long run, the government needs a new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services whose sole task is regulating the food supply.

"Our food safety system is plagued with problems and is leading to millions of Americans becoming severely sick each year," Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, told reporters during a conference call.

An outbreak of salmonella in peanut products has further shaken confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply. It has sickened nearly 700 people, has been linked to nine deaths and has forced the largest food recall in U.S. history.

President Barack Obama on March 14 chose Dr. Margaret Hamburg to run the FDA and also announced a Cabinet-level group that will provide advice on how to improve food safety.

"I believe the first priority should be to repair what is wrong at FDA," Michael Taylor of George Washington University, who has worked in food safety posts at both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told reporters.

"The FDA has jurisdiction over 80 percent of the food supply, including virtually all imports. Recent nationwide outbreaks involving salmonella-tainted produce and peanuts expose really critical shortcomings at FDA and CDC with respect to both prevention and response to foodborne outbreaks," added Taylor, who provided advice for the report.

Taylor said the FDA has three critical weaknesses:

- obsolete statutes that focus on reacting to problems instead of preventing them;

- inadequate resources that have resulted in "serious gaps in standard-setting and a weak enforcement program";

- and a fragmented structure that impedes management.

While ultimately the FDA commissioner has the power to guide food safety, he said the focus at FDA traditionally has been on medications. "There is no FDA official whose full-time job is food safety," Taylor said.

Michelle Larkin of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said about one in four Americans, or 76 million people, get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, more than 300,000 are hospitalized and 500,000 die.

"It costs us around $44 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity, so the stakes are really high," Larkin said.