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Where's the Food Safety Net?


As a new salmonella crisis strikes, the FDA is stretched to "near the breaking point"

In early June, McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKC), and several other U.S. restaurants disposed of their red tomatoes, while Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) stopped selling certain varieties. They were responding to an outbreak of salmonella that by then had affected 17 states and put at least 23 people in the hospital, according to the Food & Drug Administration.

For the FDA's embattled food safety inspectors, the salmonella scare was more evidence that a chronic lack of money and manpower has left the agency reacting to such events rather than preventing them in the first place—a longtime goal. Stephen Sundlof, who runs the FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, has recently wondered if his people can handle more than one big crisis at a time—say, a nationwide outbreak of E. coli and salmonella. "[We're] near the breaking point," he says.

The situation is so dire that the Bush Administration has made an extraordinary request to add $275 million to its proposed 2009 budget for the FDA. The move follows an even more unusual plea from agency Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach for the same amount in emergency funding for fiscal 2008. Meanwhile, a coalition of 180 companies, industry groups, consumer advocates, and patient groups are pushing for more money and people at the FDA.

In recent years the FDA has found itself with more and more to do: nutrition labeling, regulating dietary supplements, ensuring the safety of surging food imports. Yet since 2004 the agency has lost nearly a third of its food safety and field staffers, and many more are expected to retire soon. To check all the food production facilities around the world at the current rate of inspections would take 1,900 years. Sundlof jokes, grimly, that he'd like to get that down to 1,500 years.

MISSION AND SACRIFICE

Critical equipment also is in short supply. Researchers at an FDA lab near San Francisco were testing a Chinese herbal supplement recently to see if it was fit for human consumption. They fired up their mass spectrophotometer, a $150,000 machine that can detect tiny amounts of toxic substances, and inserted a sample. Not only did the machine pick up high levels of mercury, but there was so much of the metal they had to shut down the machine to be cleaned. Since the lab has only one mass spectrophotometer, all such tests came to a halt for two weeks.

The food safety system hasn't collapsed, say current and former FDA employees, thanks to a strong sense of mission and sacrifice. Staff have been known to use their own credit cards to buy suspect products. Interrupting vacations or working all night is common.

But the daily struggle to do more with less has serious implications for safety. The FDA suspected Cold Stone Creamery ice cream of making people sick with salmonella in 2005 but lacked the test required to prove the contamination. It had to turn to the University of Georgia's Food Science & Technology Dept. for help finding the bacteria. And since it spends so much time reacting to emergencies, the FDA ends up neglecting routine tasks. "A regulation I started in 1998 to reduce the risk of salmonella in eggs has still not hit the street," says one recent retiree. "Part of the reason I left is that I didn't have much hope" that the problems would get better.

Some 35 years after the U.S. thought botulism in canned food was history, the bacterial toxin appeared last summer in chili sauce made in a Georgia plant run by Castleberry's Brands. Why? Field staff say they were too busy to examine new technology that Castleberry's was using in its plants—technology that turned out to be flawed.

Agency staff have long wanted to put in place a system that prevents food crises before they happen. But there are no resources for such an effort. And when the agency proposed new safety regulations on produce last year, the Bush Administration nixed the request.

BEYOND INSPECTIONS

The FDA is still trying to get more support and to make the system work better. Dr. David W. K. Acheson, associate commissioner for foods, is spearheading a new plan that would allow the FDA to inspect certain overseas manufacturers and force foreign firms to take more responsibility for safety. It would better assess specific threats from certain foods (and foods from manufacturers and nations) rather than, say, lumping all seafood together as uniformly risky and giving it all equal scrutiny. Such sophisticated methods are crucial. "We can't inspect our way out of this problem," says Acheson.

The plan is written, and Acheson has been trying to persuade Congress to fund it. With the growing support from industry and consumer groups, Congress may finally act. The proposed $275 million boost likely won't happen before fiscal 2009. And it will still fall short of the budget doubling over five years recommended by the FDA's Science Board, an advisory group. The FDA is used to that, of course. "We accept that we will come up short of where we would like to be," says Acheson. But even a small boost would strengthen the front lines in the battle to ensure America's food supply is safe.

Links

On June 11, NewScientist.com suggested that salmonella outbreaks are frequently traced to produce because it is "packaged and shipped in centralized locations, so instead of a localized outbreak, we see a nationwide or even worldwide epidemic." Scientists and inspectors are increasingly looking at produce as a salmonella source, says the site.

Carey is a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington.

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