WASHINGTON — The federal agency that’s been front and center in warning the public about tainted spinach and contaminated peanut butter is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago.
The cuts by the Food and Drug Administration come despite a barrage of high-profile food recalls.
“We have a food safety crisis on the horizon,” said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
Between 2003 and 2006, FDA food safety inspections dropped 47 percent, according to a database analysis of federal records by The Associated Press.
The analysis also shows:
- There are 12 percent fewer FDA employees in field offices who concentrate on food issues.
- Safety tests for U.S.-produced food have dropped nearly 75 percent, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year, according to the agency’s own statistics.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the FDA, at the urging of Congress, increased the number of food inspectors and inspections amid fears that the nation’s food system was vulnerable to terrorists.
Inspectors and inspections spiked in 2003, but now both have fallen enough to erase the gains.
“The only difference is now it’s worse, because there are more inspections to do — more facilities — and more food coming into America, which requires more inspections,” said Tommy Thompson, who as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services pushed to increase the numbers.
The Bush administration’s budget request for 2008 includes an additional $10.6 million for food safety at the FDA; the lobbying group said 10 times that increase is needed.
Members of Congress have renewed the focus on the safety of the nation’s food supply amid highly publicized recalls sparked by food poisoning.
The latest big recall involves peanut butter believed tainted with salmonella. The outbreak has sickened at least 329 people in 41 states since August, federal health officials say.