WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs more clout, money and staff to help protect the U.S. food supply, but first of all it needs a coherent vision, a panel of experts said on Tuesday.
The Institute of Medicine report is the latest in a series of outside studies showing the FDA, which polices drugs and 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, does not have enough power.
The report said FDA should be given authority to suspend food company registrations for violations that threaten the public health, and the authority to mandate recalls. The FDA usually now must coax companies into voluntarily recalling dangerous foods.
Recent high-profile outbreaks, many involving produce such as lettuce, spinach, peppers and peanuts, have killed dozens of people and prompted an uproar from consumer groups.
Congress has been working to overhaul the food safety system but legislation has been repeatedly bogged down by healthcare and regulatory reform. The House of Representatives passed food reform legislation in July. The Senate is expected to act this month.
The Obama administration organized a food safety working group last year that made recommendations for reducing foodborne illnesses, which sicken an estimated 76 million people in the United States each year and kill 5,000 according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The legislation needs to help beef up the FDA, the report recommends -- but the FDA also must develop a better system for overseeing food safety.
“Congress should consider amending the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to provide explicitly and in detail the authorities the FDA needs to fulfill its food safety mission,” the report, written by 13 outside experts in food safety, regulation and the law, reads.
The committee said that while it supports increasing funding for the FDA, “simply putting more money into the food safety system as it is currently constituted, without essential reforms, would be insufficient from a public health perspective and an inefficient expenditure of resources.”
The independent institute, which advises the federal government on issues of health and medicine, held a series of hearings to come up with the report issued on Tuesday.
“FDA uses some risk assessment and management tactics, but the agency’s approach is too often reactive and lacks a systematic focus on prevention,” committee chair Robert Wallace of the University of Iowa said in a statement.
Americans are eating more varieties of food, the report noted, more foods are being imported and at the same time the public is more aware of and worried about foodborne illness than in times past.
It said FDA should explore alternative approaches to regulating food safety, such as delegating food facility inspections to the states.
“The FDA should develop a comprehensive strategic plan for development and implementation of a risk-based food safety management system,” the report reads.
The agency needs to evaluate how many people it really needs to do the job of overseeing a $450 billion food system that involves more than 156,000 FDA-regulated firms including suppliers, farmers, food handlers, processors, wholesalers and retailers and food service companies.
It barely gets to a fraction of these now, the report noted. “Seventy-five percent of (U.S.) seafood comes from abroad; however, the FDA inspects less than 2 percent of imported foods,” it reads.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham