GAO: FDA needs food safety planning

The Food and Drug Administration has done little to determine its strategies or resources for a plan to improve oversight of food safety, Lisa Shames, director of the Government Accountability Office’s natural resources and environment issues, has told a House committee.

Recent outbreaks of illnesses caused by food, such as E.coli from spinach and the current outbreak of salmonella from tomatoes, have undermined consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply, Shames said June 12 at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

“As foodborne illness outbreaks continue, FDA is missing valuable opportunities to reassure Congress and the public that it is doing all it can to protect the nation’s food supply,” she testified.

However, the FDA has taken a first step to modernize its policies and approach to food safety to accommodate the shift towards a globally fed U.S. food supply and changes in demographics and consumption patterns. But the plan requires specifics, Shames said.

In November, the FDA released its Food Protection Plan, which outlines prevention, intervention and response to food safety and is focused on a risk-based approach to food inspections to get the most effective and efficient use of its limited resources, she said.

The FDA recently has received more attention and resources, she said. The Senate passed a supplemental spending bill that included $119 million more for food safety through fiscal 2009.

And on June 9, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt amended the administration’s 2009 budget request to increase funding for food safety by another $125 million, in addition to the original $42 million increase, Shames said.

FDA’s Science Board, an advisory group, has released a critical report that found the agency could not meet current or emerging regulatory needs and does not have the capacity in staffing and technology to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply, she said. The advisory board found that FDA’s resources had not kept up with its increasing responsibilities. It would need to increase its budget by a total of $755 million by fiscal year 2013, phased in over time, starting with $128 million in 2009, the science board said.
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FDA had directed $48 million of its $56 million increase in funding this year from 2007 toward the Food Protection Plan and requested a $42 million increase for food safety in 2009 from 2008.

With more funding and staff members, FDA should be able to fill out the Food Protection plans with more specific actions to fulfill goals and provide timelines, Shames said.

FDA has conducted foundation activities for the program in outreach, understanding traceability and established a steering committee to improve the agency’s risk-based approach, said Dr. David Acheson, FDA’s associate commissioner for foods.

The FDA is hiring 161 employees during 2008 for food safety activities. The agency plans to improve its information systems that support research, risk assessment, inspection and surveillance activities, he said.

“We are working with all our partners to develop the science foundation and necessary tools to better understand the current risks in the food supply. We are developing new detection technologies and improved response systems to rapidly react to food safety threats,” he said.
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FDA’s food plan would build in safety measures across a product’s life cycle, from the time a food is produced to the time it is distributed and consumed, Acheson said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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