WASHINGTON Preparations for a biological attack and repeated outbreaks of food poisoning have interfered with efforts by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to improve the safety of fresh produce, according to a report released on Friday.
The agency is also unclear on what it plans to do to shape up, the Government Accountability Office said.
"While FDA has considered fresh produce safety a priority for many years, resource constraints and other work -- including counterterrorism efforts and unplanned events such as foodborne illness outbreaks -- have caused FDA to delay key produce safety activities," the GAO report reads.
"FDA has no formal program devoted exclusively to fresh produce and has not consistently and reliably tracked its fresh produce spending."
It said the FDA spent at least $20 million or about 3 percent of its food safety dollars on fresh produce in 2007.
The fresh produce industry has indicated it would welcome stronger regulation, especially after outbreaks of Salmonella carried by peppers from Mexico and that sickened 1,400 people from April to August of this year and an E. coli epidemic in 2006, traced to California spinach, that killed three.
Congress has held several hearings into the FDA's role in regulating 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.
FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach defended the agency's efforts.
"We have not been sitting idly by doing nothing with regard to food protection -- quite the contrary. A number of very significant things have occurred," he said.
WORK IN PROGRESS
"It's a work in progress, and it will continuously go on and continuously improve ... There's much more to come."
The FDA said it is meeting with officials in Canada and Mexico and will add 327 state contract food inspections in 2009. Last month the FDA approved the use of radiation to disinfect fresh spinach and lettuce.
The GAO report noted that the FDA has limited resources.
"FDA's intervention efforts have also been limited. Specifically, domestic fresh produce firms were inspected infrequently. Furthermore, FDA examined less than 1 percent of the 7.6 million fresh produce lines imported from fiscal years 2002 through 2007," the report reads.
Policing produce is difficult because it is so perishable and because processors often mix items from different sources, the report found.
"FDA has proposed changes through its Food Protection Plan that could significantly enhance its fresh produce oversight. However, the agency is still in the planning stages for several enhancements and has not provided specific information on strategies and resources, making it difficult to assess the likelihood of success," the report reads.
It said the FDA should move quickly to offer better guidance to industry.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 76 million people get some kind of foodborne illness, 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die. Symptoms can include abdominal cramps, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Eric Walsh)