Efforts to overhaul the U.S. food safety system could suffer unless major gaps in state and local programs are repaired and integrated with changes taking place in Washington, experts said on Friday.

State and local agencies have difficulty preventing and responding to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses because of chronic underfunding, varying levels of resources, different methods in addressing food safety and barriers preventing collaboration, the researchers said in a report.

"It really starts with the reality that they are the foundation of the system," said Michael Taylor, a professor of health policy at George Washington University who helped write the report.

The study, released by the university, was based on information from federal, state and local officials and others. It is the latest to offer advice to U.S. policymakers looking for ways to improve the food safety system.

"As you debate food safety reform at the federal level ... you're not going to fix the food safety problem" without strengthening state and local efforts, Taylor said.

The role played by states received increased attention after a recent outbreak tied to salmonella-contaminated peanut products led to the recall of more than 3,200 products and sickened 691 people. The outbreak was linked to nine deaths and prompted the largest food recall in U.S. history.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not inspected the Georgia plant that was the source of the outbreak since 2001, delegating responsibility to Georgia state officials beginning in 2006. Internal tests by the company later found salmonella 12 times, but it sold the peanut products anyway.

FDA RELIES ON STATES

Even though food products are regulated at the federal level by the FDA and the U.S. Agriculture Department, more inspections, food samples and enforcement actions are performed by state and local agencies, according to the report.

It estimated that 3,000 local public health agencies are involved in food safety along with dozens of state-level offices. The FDA contracts with state agencies to conduct more than half of its inspections, Taylor said.

Lawmakers, the Obama administration and consumer groups have called for improving the food safety system in the wake of several major food recalls since 2006 involving products such as spinach, peppers and pistachios.

The report offered 19 recommendations to improve the U.S. food safety system, including:

— Establishing a network of regional, federally funded foodborne outbreak response centers, with each center staffed by a team of federal, state and local officials.

— Having Congress direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of which the FDA is a part, to develop a national food safety system with a person to lead it.

— Having Congress establish traceability requirements that permit federal, state and local officials to obtain from food companies information on the source of commodities, ingredients and finished products.