Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Food Imports Don't Get Enough Oversight by U.S., Lawmakers Say

By Justin Blum - Bloomberg - Tue., Jul 17, 2007
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't have enough staff to protect Americans from tainted food imports, lawmakers and congressional investigators said.
The FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imported food and takes samples of only a fraction of those products, said Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of a House panel holding a food-safety hearing today in Washington. The FDA plans to close seven of 13 labs that inspect food as well as other imports, posing new dangers, he said.

The FDA is under criticism from lawmakers who say the agency didn't do enough to protect the public from contaminated spinach last year and tainted peanut butter and pet food this year. The agency also was slow to react to contaminated seafood from China being shipped to the U.S., they said.

``FDA's food-safety program is woefully understaffed,'' said Stupak, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. ``Entry reviewers, investigators and compliance officers simply cannot keep up with the flood of imported food.''

The FDA shouldn't go forward with plans to consolidate labs, said David Nelson, an investigator with the Energy and Commerce Committee, during the hearing. The agency hasn't provided proof that the closures would save money, he said.

In San Francisco, four reviewers oversee thousands of shipments of products regulated by the FDA every day, according to a report by committee investigators released at the hearing. In a typical day, an FDA reviewer examines one entering line of food and other products every 30 seconds, the report said.

`Fragmented, Understaffed'

``The Federal food-safety system is in dire need of reform: It is fragmented, understaffed, inefficient, and lagging in state-of-the-art tracking systems,'' said John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan and chairman of the Energy and Commerce panel, at the hearing. ``FDA has largely abdicated its regulatory role to the food industry itself, which is expected to police itself.''

The FDA has ``done a great deal'' to protect the U.S. food supply from contamination, said Andrew von Eschenbach, the agency's commissioner, in prepared testimony. The FDA is working to develop new strategies designed to bolster the country's food safety system, he said.
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