Why We Can't Trust Our Food

The shortcomings in the Food and Drug Administration that became apparent during the scandals over Vioxx and contaminated spinach are just a small part of the problems besetting the agency. In a recent review, a panel of experts concluded that the FDA suffers from outdated technology, inadequate staffing, an inability to hold onto the staff it has, and an overall lack of resources.

The one encouraging feature of the review is that the FDA commissioner himself, Andrew von Eschenbach, had called for it. That should help guarantee that the report won't be quickly dismissed, as have similar complaints about the agency from former employees."FDA's inability to keep up with scientific advances means that Americans' lives are at risk," the report said. "The FDA does not have the capacity to ensure the safety of food for the nation." With a budget of about $2 billion, the agency tries to regulate everything from cosmetics to prescription drugs to most food - products with a total value of $1 trillion a year.

So a first test of the resolve of Congress and the Bush administration to address the FDA's problems will be its budget. The increase of just 5.3 percent requested by the agency is clearly not up to the challenges laid out by the report's authors from industry, government, and academia.

Edward Kennedy, chairman of the US Senate Health Committee, pointed to the report's conclusions at a hearing Tuesday. He noted that both the European Union and Japan have more robust systems of food inspection than the United States, especially for imports. Alarm bells went off in 2006 when pet food imported from China killed or sickened thousands of dogs and cats in the United States. The Washington Post later unearthed FDA documents showing human food shipments from China with high levels of carcinogens, filth, and pesticides.

A former FDA associate commissioner, William Hubbard, told the Globe this spring that just 2 percent of all food imports from China get inspected - even with that country's checkered safety record. For food from other countries, the rate is less than 1 percent. Hubbard said domestic food producers can go for 10 to 15 years between inspections. It is basically an "honor system," he said. According to Hubbard, reform will require a rebuilding of the FDA's corps of scientists. In the last three years, he said those working at the food inspection headquarters had declined from 1,000 to 800.

Each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illnesses kill 5,000 Americans. Congress can reduce such avoidable deaths by insisting on an FDA with the resources and authority it needs. The public should not have to wait for a new administration to crack down on producers or importers of tainted food.

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