Report calls for dedicated US food safety agency

Thursday, March 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:29 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 26, 2009

WASHINGTON — Adding to the chorus seeking an overhaul of the nation's food safety system, a report issued Wednesday called on the Obama administration to put someone in charge of safeguarding the food supply, and to create a Food Safety Administration.

The food safety system is "plagued with problems," said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, which released the report with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Calls for reform of the Food and Drug Administration have only become louder since the salmonella outbreak late last year linked to peanut products. Voluntary product recalls are still being announced; nearly 700 people have gotten sick in the outbreak.

"We are way overdue for a makeover," Michelle Larkin, Public Health Team director at the foundation, said in a conference call announcing the report. "It costs us around $44 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity, so the stakes are really high."

Michael Taylor, a former FDA deputy and a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, characterized the problems as obsolete laws that focus on reacting to problems rather than preventing them and too little funding. Also, there is no unified system for inspection, enforcement and notifying the public of dangers.

The report calls for FDA food program funding to double over the next five years, from $542 million in fiscal year 2009.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress to remake the food safety system, a responsibility shared by 15 agencies, according to the nonprofit Trust for America's Health. A bill introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., calls for splitting the FDA into two agencies — one for food and one for drugs and medical devices.

A Senate bill to revamp the food safety system has support from members of both parties. There also is support for reform from consumer groups and industry, now frequently relied upon to police itself.

The country, Levi said, has "reached the tipping point," and the political will exists for reform. But even some who are seeking reform are skeptical it will get attention this year. Although creating a new Food Safety Administration, under the Department of Health and Human Services, would require an act of Congress, other measures are less involved.

President Barack Obama earlier this month chose former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to head the FDA; she must be confirmed by the Senate. At the same time, Obama announced a Food Safety Working Group to recommend how to update food safety laws — some of which have not changed in a century.

The FDA regulates 80 percent of the U.S. food supply; most meat and dairy fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 76 million Americans get food poisoning each year; 5,000 die, public health experts say.

Among possible reforms is a tracking system for recalled food products. The FDA also cannot mandate recalls; that too could change.

Some concerns have been raised that new regulations could be too costly for small farms or producers to comply. Taylor said their worries would be taken into account. "There needs to be a standard that all folks can meet," he said.


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