100 Days Later, Nation Waits for FDA Overhaul

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NBC News

100 Days Later, Nation Waits for FDA Overhaul

Agency is so understaffed, it inspects less than 1 percent of imported food

by
Tom Costello

The FDA is so understaffed it inspects less than 1 percent of imported food.

The Food and Drug Administration may be the
only federal agency that both political parties agree is in desperate
need of an overhaul.

President Barack Obama
is promising action, though progress has been slow in the first 100
days. His choice to head the FDA - Dr. Margaret Hamburg - still has not
been confirmed by congress.

Assuming
Hamburg is confirmed, she will head an agency whose own Science Board
concluded more than two years ago "is at risk of failing to carry out
its mandate, leaving our citizens at risk of grievous harm."

The
FDA is responsible for overseeing the safety of the nation's foods,
drugs, medical devices and consumer products. In each of those areas,
the agency is widely regarded as having fallen down on the job.

But its biggest black eye comes from the way the agency has handled its food safety responsibilities.

Safety of the food supply The
president has promised to act quickly to ensure the safety of the
nation's food supply, following the most recent salmonella outbreak
involving peanut butter that has sickened nearly 500 people and killed
10.

That outbreak follows others
involving baby formula, pet food, spinach, jalapenos, cooked ham,
anchovies - and the list goes on.

After
pointing out that America's food safety laws have not been updated
since they were written during Teddy Roosevelt's administration, the
president announced the creation of a new "Food Safety Working Group."
The group's mission is to determine how our food safety laws need to be
overhauled.

During an interview with
NBC's Matt Lauer on the Today Show, Obama said "at a bare minimum, we
should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when
they eat peanut butter."

"That's what Sasha eats for lunch," he added, referring to his daughter.

Among
the FDA's handicaps is enforcing food safety; it does not have the
authority to order a recall on its own. It relies on the cooperation of
food providers to voluntarily recall products.

Complicating
efforts, the FDA is not alone in policing food safety. Even though the
FDA is responsible for 75 percent of the food supply, the USDA actually
gets 80 percent of the food safety funding, though its responsibilities
are limited to meat and poultry.

Marion
Nestle, the author of "Safe Food" and a professor of food studies and
public health at New York University, writes in the San Francisco
Chronicle "this weird division of responsibility began in 1906, and
it's breathtaking in its irrationality. The FDA oversees the safety of
cheese pizza; the USDA oversees pepperoni pizza."

Meanwhile,
the FDA is so understaffed, it's only able to inspect roughly 1 percent
of foods that are imported into the country. And the rate of
inspections at U.S. plants isn't much better. The FDA had not inspected
Peanut Corporation of America's Georgia plant since 2001. Investigators
say PCA's own internal tests repeatedly found salmonella traces, but it
continued to sell peanut butter products.

The Obama administration has already signaled that it intends to streamline the entire food safety process.

Agriculture
Secretary Tom Vilsak told NBC News in February that "we need to figure
out how to coordinate what FDA does and USDA does and ultimately merge
those entities into a single food agency that would be responsible for
all food products so that there's no possibility of something falling
through the cracks."

Don't be surprised
if a central theme in the president's Food Safety Working Group
includes merging the responsibilities of the USDA and FDA into a single
agency.

However, experts also suggest food safety will not improve unless cities and states also improve their food safety procedures.

A stronger FDA Look
for Obama to increase oversight of imports and closer inspection of
domestic food production as well, though it's unlikely a new food
safety agency would have the manpower necessary to inspect every import
and every U.S. plant involved in food or drug manufacturing.

The FDA's own Science Board notes "there are 375,000 establishments making FDA-regulated products."

"In
just a decade, there has been a ten-fold increase in imports, coming
from more than 100 other countries. Over 50 percent of drugs are
imported, along with 15 percent of our food supply," according to the
report.

Former FDA Associate Commissioner
William Hubbard told NBC News "I think the agency is at a tipping
point. If change doesn't come in terms of new management and resources,
they could be a failed institution."

While
former President George W. Bush preferred a market-based approach to
food and drug safety, Democrats in Congress are already moving toward
giving the FDA more power.

The House
passed a bill on April 2 that would give the FDA the power to change
the ingredients in cigarettes and mandate new warning labels. However,
the bill stops short of giving the FDA the authority to ban tobacco
products or nicotine. A similar bill is under consideration in the
Senate.

Tobacco is considered a leading
cause of preventable deaths in America, killing more than 400,000
people each year. Yet until now, tobacco products have been among the
least-regulated products in the nation. Even Obama has been trying to
wean himself off the habit.

Assuming she is confirmed by the Senate, Hamburg will have her hands full when she takes over as FDA Commissioner.

Her
track record suggests she's up for the challenge. Her resume includes
stints as the senior scientist for the Nuclear Threat Initiative where
she also served as vice president of biological programs; assistant
secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and
Human Services; New York City health commissioner.

She's
also held positions with the National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases, and the Office of Disease Prevention and Health
Promotion at HHS.

The White House's priorities, and her own, will likely be revealed during her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.

 

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