The FDA's Inspection Problem: One Reason Our Food Supply Isn't Safe

Without the personnel to do its own inspections of facilities, the FDA increasingly delegates them to state agencies, which fail at the task.

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The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services, FDA's parent agency, has just issued a report sharply criticizing FDA's oversight of state food inspections.

This report is one more piece of evidence for how FDA's lack of resources makes our food supply less safe.

Because it does not have the personnel to do its own inspections, FDA increasingly delegates them to state agencies. The salmonella outbreak from peanuts in 2009 is a prime example of why the state system is too diffuse to work. As the report explains:

The peanut processing plant responsible for a 2009 salmonella outbreak was inspected multiple times by a state agency working on behalf of FDA. This outbreak resulted in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and has led to serious questions about the effectiveness of state food facility inspections.

FDA has long been unable to inspect more than a tiny fraction of food processing facilities and the situation is getting worse, not better: The overall number of facilities inspected decreased from just over 17,000 facilities in 2004 to about 15,900 in 2009 (four percent-five percent of the total number).

FDA increasingly goes to states to fill the gap. In 2009, it contracted with 41 states to conduct inspections, and these conducted 59 percent percent of FDA's food inspections. In 2004, state inspections comprised just 42 percent of inspections.

FDA says it has good reasons for relying on states:

According to FDA officials, one reason FDA relies on states is that these inspections are conducted under state regulatory authority, which often exceeds FDA's own authority. For example, several FDA officials noted that, under certain conditions, state inspectors can immediately shut down a facility or seize unsafe food products, whereas FDA would have to go through a lengthy legal process to achieve similar results.

But this is not enough. The current report is only the latest of a series of OIG reports detailing problems with FDA's food inspections. Previous reports found that more than half of all food facilities have gone five or more years without an FDA inspection.

The report concludes:

Taken together, the findings demonstrate that more needs to be done to protect public health and to ensure that contract inspections are effective and prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Yes, of course they do. But how is FDA supposed to fix the problem?

Bizarrely, and at great risk to the public, FDA gets its funding from congressional agriculture appropriations committees, not health committees.

In this era of cost cutting, FDA was lucky to get a $50 million increase in funding, or so everyone says.

But this is nowhere near enough to hire and train enough inspectors to do the job right. It's not that the states can't do a good job. It's that the dispersion of authority leaves much room for flexibility in interpretation and lack of accountability, as the OIG reports consistently show.

For reasons of politics, this may not be the time to demand a stronger food safety system. But if not now, when?

Image: branislavpudar/Shutterstock.

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This post also appears on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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