May 25, 2010

FDA Needs More Authority To Keep US Food Safe

The General Accountability Office (GAO) said on Monday that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs greater authority, more cooperation from other agencies, and must do more scientific research to help make the U.S. food supply safer.

The GAO said that the FDA also needs to do more to help consumers navigate the maze of food supplements on the market and requires more power to regulate them.

The GAO said that a series of food safety concerns has shaken consumer confidence in the food supply.  California-based Caldwell Fresh Foods recalled alfalfa sprouts last week as salmonella sickened 20 people.

"We found that FDA was hampered in its ability to carry out some food safety responsibilities -- oversight of food labels, fresh produce, and dietary supplements -- because it lacked certain scientific information," Lisa Shames, director of Natural Resources and Environment for GAO, wrote in a letter accompanying the report.

The GAO said the FDA has tried to meet some of its recommendations, but needed to do more.

The report said that these needs are becoming more important as the U.S. food supply changes.

"First, imported food makes up a substantial and growing portion of the U.S. food supply, with 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood coming from across our borders," it said.

The FDA can inspect only 1 percent of this food.

"Second, we are increasingly eating foods that are consumed raw and that have often been associated with foodborne illness outbreaks, including leafy greens such as spinach."

The FDA regulates 80 percent of the food supply.  Meat and processed egg products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said that the FDA has met some recommendations.  "For example, FDA reported in May 2008 that it created the Office of Chief Scientist," it said.

It is also working on a computer system that will predict which food imports are most likely to be contaminated.  However, GAO said that Customs and Border Patrol was not alerting FDA when imports of food arrive.

The report said that the FDA should ask for more authority to regulate nutritional supplements also.  The Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA) covers most supplements and does not allow the FDA much intervention.

An Institute of Medicine report earlier this month said that the FDA needs new standards to determine the benefits of food, drugs and supplements.  Committee members said that consumers often wrongly assume the FDA regulates food and supplements in the same way it does drugs.

The GAO also said that the FDA does not have the proper enforcement tools.

"FDA does not have empirical research on consumer perceptions to support enforcement against misleading food labels," the report reads.

"For example, stakeholders from health, medical, and consumer organizations reported that 'whole grain' labels can be misleading because the product may contain little whole grain, 'trans-fat free' products may still be high in saturated fat, and 'natural' products may be highly processed."

The FDA and National Institutes of Health launched a new website on Monday to help report pre- and post- market safety data on food and drugs.

"We will now be able to analyze human and animal safety-related events more quickly and identify those measures needed to protect the public," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg wrote in a statement to Reuters.


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