FDA Cites Progress on Food Safety

December 3, 2008

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it is making “significant progress” with its one-year program to protect both domestic and imported food from accidental and intentional contamination.

“Science and 21st century technologies help drive the FDA’s efforts to transform our food safety efforts from the Food Protection Plan into a reality,” said Commissioner of Food and Drugs Andrew C. von Eschenbach.

He said his agency is working with foreign countries, state and local governments, regulated industry and consumer groups to ensure the safety of the food supply. It also is working with members of Congress to achieve new authorities requested under its Food Protection Plan.

The agency cited several examples progress in the area of prevention, including the opening of offices in five regions that export food and other FDA-regulated products to the U.S.: China, India, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. The FDA has already hired staff for its offices in China and India.

Other highlights cited by the FDA include:

The release of the CARVER self-assessment tool for industry, to minimize the risk of intentional contamination of food, and conducted training seminars for industry on how to use the tool.

A meeting with more than 200 federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners to address the challenges of protecting the nation’s food supply.

Approval of the use of irradiation of iceberg lettuce and spinach for the control of pathogens, such as Escherichia. coli, in or on those foods.

Development of methods to detect melamine and cyanuric acid in feed and feed ingredients.

Using genetic analysis to identify hundreds of Salmonella strains from seafood imports.

Completed inspections of 5,930 high-risk domestic food establishments during the Fiscal Year (FY) 2008.

Development of a rapid detection method that uses flow cytometry to identify E. coli and Salmonella in food, now in use in poultry-processing facilities to detect and prevent bacterial contamination during food processing.

The federal agency also claimed progress in responding to food emergencies by working with industry and the public to identify best practices for tracing fresh produce throughout the supply chain, authoring tools used to track emergency response resources and other locations of interest and hiring two emergency /complaint-response coordinators to improve its response to emergencies that involve animal feed, including pet food.

Following the detection of melamine in infant formula and milk products from China, the FDA said it worked with its state and local counterparts to rapidly canvas over 2,100 vendors of Asian products to remove any Chinese infant formula from the market and to sample milk-derived Chinese products to check for melamine contamination.

The FDA has signed cooperative agreements with six U.S. states to form a Rapid Response Team to develop, implement, exercise, and integrate an all-hazards response capability for food and foodborne illness responses, to react more rapidly react to potential threats to our food supply.

As FDA was touting its progress, critics complained that more needs to be done.

Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), said that while FDA should be commended for moving ahead with certain initiatives, it lacks the resources needed to fix the food safety system and the nation lacks a modern plan for food protection.

“America’s food safety system has not been seriously upgraded in more than 100 years, and too many Americans get sick each year from preventable foodborne illnesses. We need a major overhaul matched by major investments to achieve the level of change needed,” Levi said.

Levi urged the FDA to tell Congress and the American people what resources are needed over the long-term.

TFAH released a report, Fixing Food Safety: Protecting America’s Food Supply from Farm-to-Fork, earlier in 2008 identifying what it said are major gaps in the nation’s food safety system, including obsolete laws, misallocation of resources, and inconsistencies among major food safety agencies.

According to the report, approximately 76 million Americans — one in four — are sickened by foodborne diseases each year. Of these, an estimated 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die. Medical costs and lost productivity due to foodborne illnesses in the U.S. are estimated to cost $44 billion annually.

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