Deadly Outbreaks May Force Shift in US Food Inspections

Monday, 05 Mar 2012 04:33 PM

By Richard Wagner

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Deadly outbreaks of foodborne illnesses linked to sources other than livestock are prompting federal officials to rethink the way they monitor the nation’s food supply, The Washington Post reports.

For almost a century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has sent armies of inspectors to slaughterhouses, which the agency thought posed the greatest potential for tainted food.

But federal officials are looking for a better method, with food-borne illnesses striking one in six Americans a year and killing about 3,000.

They are considering monitoring foods that have become more popular in the American diet instead of allocating shrinking resources to slaughterhouses. That diet includes foods such as seafood, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, and shelled eggs, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates now.

The FDA inspects the plants that produce those foods an average of once every 10 years, but it lacks the money to hire more inspectors.

Because of the FDA’s limited resources, the agency is forced to concentrate on foods and companies that have the worst track records on safety. And those inspections, employing genetic fingerprinting and other scientific methods to track contaminants to the source, usually come after an outbreak has occurred.

However, food safety experts contend that the government could do a better job of guarding the food supply by dramatically changing the way the USDA and the FDA try to prevent food-borne illnesses.

“We have two extremes in the inspection programs,” Michael Doyle, a microbiologist in charge of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told the Post. “Neither system is working very well. They both need to be updated and upgraded.”

A law enacted last year attempts to do just that by forcing the FDA to shift its emphasis from responding to outbreaks to preventing them. Under the law, the agency must increase the frequency of inspections and food companies must test consistently for potential hazards.

Unfortunately, the law did not appropriate money to hire additional inspectors. President Barack Obama has asked for $863 million for FDA food safety programs, compared with $1 billion a year the USDA spends on food safety, according to the Post.

Obama’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes fees to generate $225 million to help the FDA meet the requirements of the new law. Congress, however, rejected similar plans in the past. Companies also oppose the fees.

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