by Marion Nestle
Dec 15 2011

More problems with FDA’s ability to inspect food facilities

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 (4%-5% 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 of FDA’s food inspections.  In 2004, State inspections comprised just 42% 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 5 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?

  • Jennifer Feeney

    I find this peculiar. I personally know two farmers that have been targeted by the FDA for the sale of raw milk to private buying clubs. Regardless of what you think about raw milk, the FDA seems to have the resources to execute an undercover investigation that has been underway for years, and is now moving to lawyer fees and a grand jury. We are talking about a LOT of money here. How is it that this poor-cash strapped, undersaffed agency can conduct investigations of this nature and yet completely ignore large producers that ARE making people sick?

  • greensleeves

    I must say I completely agree with Jennifer – the small farmers, small cheesemakers, artisan food producers, vegan buying clubs – these are the folks at which FDA targets its resources.

    Meanwhile large industrial operations responsible for sickening thousands and even killing a few Americans are never held accountable. The giant egg, peanut, cantaloupe, and raw cookie dough outbreaks resulted in what penalties for these industrial producers?

    Almost none. So slight as to be a slap on the wrist. Meanwhile the poor artisan cheesemaker has the FDA show up with a SWAT team?!?!? When will you condemn the lack of enforcement against corporate interests, Ms. Nestle, instead of being so sympathetic to the FDA? They clearly have the resources to send out SWAT teams when they want to.

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  • Sas

    This is important information. Have to protect the food we get.

  • Russell La Claire

    Rather than just pushing an agenda re: greensleeves and Jennifer Feeney, I would suggest that folks actually read the article and do a little research of their own. FDA is charged with inspecting/covering roughly 90% of the food in, or coming into the US. This with very poorly written laws (Congress), laughable enforcement capabilities, horrible understaffing and woeful funding.

    By the way, raw milk can and does kill. If adults wish to drink raw milk that is indeed their prerogative. If they feed it to their children they should at the very least be prosecuted for child endangerment.

  • Michelle

    I agree with the first couple of comments, and I work for them. They are attacking the small firms because they are easier to go after. I disagree that raw milk kills. I grew up on it. I’m still here. All they need to do is label it. Indicate on the label that it has not been pasteurized. The FDA is a Nazi agency. Bacteria exists in nature. If you leave nature alone, it takes care of itself. When you start messing with bacteriocides which kill the competing bacteria, the bad stuff runs rampant. These outbreaks are not real, they are a means for the agency to get funding and more authority. If people would wash their fruits and veggies, and thoroughly cook their meat they would be fine. Also in one of the FDA classes, an instructor actually stated that if you eat probiotics you are fine. Never heard them tell the consumer that.