FDA needs more clout to make food supply safer

WASHINGTON Mon May 24, 2010 7:10pm EDT

Hot dogs are cooked during a media food tour at Yankee Stadium in New York April 15, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Hot dogs are cooked during a media food tour at Yankee Stadium in New York April 15, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Food and Drug Administration needs greater authority, more cooperation from other agencies and must do more scientific research to help make the U.S. food supply safer, the General Accountability Office said on Monday.

The FDA also needs to do more to help consumers navigate the maze of food supplements on the market and requires more power to regulate them, the GAO said.

A series of food safety scares has shaken consumer confidence in the food supply, the GAO said. Just last week California-based Caldwell Fresh Foods recalled alfalfa sprouts after salmonella sickened 20 people.

"We found that FDA was hampered in its ability to carry out some food safety responsibilities -- oversight of food labels, fresh produce, and dietary supplements -- because it lacked certain scientific information," Lisa Shames, director of Natural Resources and Environment for GAO, wrote in a letter accompanying the report.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said the FDA had tried to meet some of its recommendations but needed to do more.

These needs are becoming more important as the U.S. food supply changes, the report said.

"First, imported food makes up a substantial and growing portion of the U.S. food supply, with 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood coming from across our borders," it said.

The FDA can inspect just 1 percent of this food.

"Second, we are increasingly eating foods that are consumed raw and that have often been associated with foodborne illness outbreaks, including leafy greens such as spinach."

The FDA regulates 80 percent of the food supply, except for meat and processed egg products, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates.

MORE AUTHORITY

The FDA has met some recommendations, GAO said. "For example, FDA reported in May 2008 that it created the Office of Chief Scientist," it said.

And it is working on a computer system that will predict which food imports are most likely to be contaminated. But GAO said Customs and Border Patrol was not alerting FDA when imports of food arrive.

The FDA should ask for more authority to regulate nutritional supplements, as well, the GAO said. The Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, or DSHEA, covers most supplements and does not allow the FDA much intervention.

An Institute of Medicine report this month said the FDA needs new standards to measure the benefits of food, drugs and supplements. Committee members noted that consumers often wrongly assume the FDA regulates food and supplements in the same way it does drugs.

The GAO also said the FDA does not have the enforcement tools it needs.

"FDA does not have empirical research on consumer perceptions to support enforcement against misleading food labels," the report reads.

"For example, stakeholders from health, medical, and consumer organizations reported that 'whole grain' labels can be misleading because the product may contain little whole grain, 'transfat free' products may still be high in saturated fat, and 'natural' products may be highly processed."

Separately on Monday, the FDA and National Institutes of Health launched a new website to help report pre- and post-market safety data on food and drugs at www.safetyreporting.hhs.gov.

"We will now be able to analyze human and animal safety-related events more quickly and identify those measures needed to protect the public," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said in a statement.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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Comments (4)
finneganG wrote:
The FDA also needs to champion a change in several laws that allow food manufacturers to misrepresent the ingredients in their products – such as .5 grams of trans fat may be reflected on the nutrition label as zero trans fat per serving.

The FDA needs to work for the consumer, not for the business community.

May 25, 2010 10:08am EDT  --  Report as abuse
chshalkr wrote:
Your photo implies that FDA regulates meat such as hot dogs. This is the responsibility of USDA, in which FDA does not have regulatory authority.

May 25, 2010 10:18am EDT  --  Report as abuse
JonBenninger wrote:
FDA has failed to use the authority it currently has under DSHEA, at least until recently when the agency seems to be getting more active. There is no need to give the agency more authority in this area. And the suggestion that if FDA regulated foods and supplements more like drugs, then these products would be safer? You mean safer like Vioxx and the other drugs that were approved by the agency and later pulled after post-market problems? The FDA regulates foods, supplements, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, veterinary drugs, plasma and blood products, radiological devices, etc. Each class of goods is regulated differently because they are, in fact, different. FDA needs more resources, and more oversight of its activity (or lack thereof), but it certainly does not need more authority. And why would the “Institute of Medicine” (get it, medicine?) be considered a resource for how foods and supplements should be regulated? The IOM should stay in its own yard.

May 25, 2010 10:50am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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