WASHINGTON – Members of a congressional committee,under new leadership,convened for the first time in six years Thursday to confront the U.S. food safety system.
“This is a system that is so antiquated that former agricultural secretary [Ann M.] Veneman once compared it to the Ford Model T,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro,D-Conn.,chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture,Rural Development,FDA and Related Agencies.
Citing the spinach and Taco Bell E. coli outbreaks of last year that sickened hundreds,DeLauro called for Congress to reform the way the Food and Drug Administration regulates food.
Each year,76 million people become sick,more than 325,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 people die from food-borne illness,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Harmful food products account for between $10 billion and $83 billion annually in medical expenses.
The FDA began in 1862 with one employee and has since expanded into a multi-agency cooperative effort. Fifteen agencies regulate food safety – a number that can be reduced to eliminate inconsistencies,DeLauro said.
The FDA regulates 80 percent of all imported and domestic food in the U.S.,yet receives only a fourth of the $1.7 billion spent on food safety each year. A majority of that money is given to the Department of Agriculture,which regulates 20 percent of all food.
“Food safety threats have evolved since our original food safety laws were enacted,” DeLauro said. “Then,our protections focused on contamination,in sanitation and diseased animals. Today's threats are constantly changing. They are microbial hazards,bacteria,viruses,and it is incumbent upon this subcommittee to ensure our food safety system,and the manner in which it is funded,evolves with those threats.”
A January report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office – the investigative arm of Congress – listed the status of food safety as part of its High Risk Series report for the first time,joining critical issues such as Medicaid,NASA's budget and improvements to homeland security.
“I think that government has way too many layers,way too many players and way too many hardened silos,” said David Walker,U.S. comptroller general and GAO's head,testifying before the committee. “In this case,15 players on the field trying to deal with 30 laws and regulations – that,by definition,is not a model for economy,efficiency and effectiveness.”
Walker cited instances when FDA and USDA representative are separately inspecting meat and cheese pizzas in the same plant.
Due to a lack of proper resources,the FDA is operating with less manpower,even though it has a host of other agencies to lean on,said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America.
The CFA estimates the FDA needs a $115 million increase to manage food safety effectively,Foreman said. The Bush administration has proposed a $10.6 million increase in the agency's food safety budget for 2008.
“It is the starving,bulimic model of government safety agencies. If it doesn't get an injection of resources very soon,its effectiveness will completely expire,” she said.
Representatives of the food industry also testified.
Tom Stenzel,president of the United Fresh Produce Association,said he would welcome changes in the way the federal government handles food safety,especially in creating nationwide safety standards for farmers and produce processors.
Mark Dopp,senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Meat Institute, said the rates of food-borne illnesses in meat,such as listeria and salmonella,have decreased in recent years.
An overhaul of the FDA should be approached with an “open mind,but with heavy doses of caution,” Dopp said,mirroring an earlier statement by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.,D-Ill.,a committee member.
Jackson said he feared a bureaucratic overhaul could reduce federal jurisdiction,leaving it entirely to the states.
“A federal model for oversight of food safety should be addressed as a 21st century challenge,” Jackson said,quoting the GAO study. “I only added it should not lead us to an 18th century solution.”