Protecting America's food

Our view : The FDA needs more resources, better leadership

July 08, 2008

Since mid-April, a record national salmonella outbreak has claimed 943 victims in 40 states. All of the cases, including 29 in Maryland, have the same genetic footprint. Despite that clue, investigators appear no closer to pinpointing the source. Tomatoes were suspected at first, but the search has been broadened to include jalapeno peppers, cilantro and green onions. As the futile investigation continues, it is becoming clear that Bush administration officials have shortchanged the nation's efforts to protect the food we eat.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the country's food supply, almost $470 billion in fruits, vegetables, seafood and other products. But its budget is without hundreds of millions in funding needed to do the job. From 2001 to 2007, the number of domestic firms under the FDA's jurisdiction increased from 51,000 to more than 65,500 while the number inspected declined to 14,566.

The FDA's food safety efforts drew widespread critical attention in late 2006 when an outbreak in bagged spinach killed three people and sickened 204 in Maryland and 25 other states. Worries grew with the subsequent recall of Taco Bell lettuce, Peter Pan peanut butter and pet food.

Last November, the FDA's Science Board said the agency lacked the staff, computer systems and funds needed to protect Americans from food-borne infections. The agency offered a plan promising to significantly improve food safety. But last month, the Government Accountability Office reported that the FDA wasn't implementing the plan. Scientists have estimated that the agency's food budget would need $755 million more a year by 2013 to carry out its responsibilities. Prodded by Congress, the Bush administration proposed increasing food safety funding for the coming fiscal year by just $125 million.

Congress has scheduled hearings on the FDA's performance later this month. The agency doesn't deserve a passing grade.

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