Lawmakers upbraid FDA for food safety failings

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional leaders on Wednesday threatened to make sweeping changes to the Bush administration’s food safety system in light of fresh concerns over contaminated pet food.

A key U.S. House leader said she might “zero out” the salaries of some Food and Drug Administration officials on because of recent food safety failings that have included bagged spinach and peanut butter. And in the Senate, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee called for a comprehensive audit of the U.S. food safety system “to determine how to remedy breakdowns in the system.”

The Agriculture Department and the FDA oversee much of the food production and processing network in the United States. But some lawmakers say one agency should be given control of food enforcement.

Connecticut Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, whose House Appropriations subcommittee has jurisdiction over FDA, said her panel may cut off salaries for directors of some FDA centers and offices unless there is rapid improvement.

DeLauro said “it has become all too clear that a lack of commitment for management” was a factor in FDA’s “disjointed food and drug safety system.”

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin asked the inspectors general of USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to jointly examine the food safety system.

“I am concerned about the marked increase in cases of adulteration of food over the past six months,” wrote Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. “From human food-borne illness cases caused by microbial pathogens in spinach, tomatoes and peanut butter to kidney failure in companion animals caused by the chemical melamine in pet food, the widespread effects of these events are alarming.”

He suggested eight topics for the review, ranging from food production practices overseas to how often U.S. plants are inspected and whether USDA and FDA have sufficient power to respond to food adulteration.