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The nation's food safety system is hobbled by major problems such as obsolete laws, misallocation of resources, and inconsistencies among major food safety agencies that are hindering its ability to prevent foodborne illness, said nonprofit organization Trust for America's Health in a report released yesterday.
"Our goal should be reducing the number of Americans who get sick from foodborne illness, [b]ut we can't adequately protect people from contaminated foods if we continue to use 100-year-old practices," noted TFAH's executive director Jeff Levi. "We need to bring food safety into the 21st century. We have the technology. We're way past due for a smart and strategic upgrade."
The report, "Fixing Food Safety: Protecting America's Food from Farm-to-Fork," concluded that:
--The U.S. food safety system has not been fundamentally updated for more than 100 years
--Most federal food safety funds go to the outdated practice of inspecting every poultry, beef, and pork carcass, although evolving threats and modern agriculture practices and technology make this obsolete
--Not enough money goes to fighting current bacteria threats such as Salmonella or dangerous strains of E. coli
--An estimated 85 percent of known foodborne illness outbreaks are linked to FDA-regulated foods, but the agency receives less than half of federal dollars earmarked for food safety
--In the past three years, the main food safety function at FDA has lost 20 percent of its science staff, and 600 inspectors
--Gaps in current inspection practices mean that acts of agroterrorism could go undetected until they are widespread
--Food safety responsibility is fragmented among 15 federal agencies, with no one holding ultimate authority
--The government inspects only 1 percent of imported foods
--States and localities don't have to meet uniform national standards for food safety.
About 76 million Americans, or one in four, become ill from foodborne diseases annually. Of these, an estimated 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die.
Medical costs and lost productivity due to foodborne illnesses in the United States are estimated to cost $44 billion yearly.
A 2007 public opinion poll conducted by TFAH found that 67 percent of Americans are concerned about food safety, more than are worried about a biological or chemical attack and natural disasters.
The TFAH report adds to a chorus of concern, coming in the wake of a 2007 review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Science Board concluding that the U.S. food supply "grows riskier each year;" and a Government Accountability Office report noting that federal oversight of food safety is one of the government's "high-risk" programs.
The TFAH report recommended:
--Repealing outdated end-product and processing plant inspection mandates and shifting the emphasis of inspection practices to the prevention of outbreaks and illnesses through the entire food production process and supply chain
--Creating mechanisms that allow inspection practices to keep up with changes in the industry
--Establishing uniform performance standards and best practices that are enforceable through such actions as detention and recall authority and civil penalty authority
--Requiring food safety education for commercial food handlers
--Improving monitoring of foreign imports and international practices; and
--Bolstering the FDA with increased funding and aligning resources with high-risk threats, with the ultimate goal of realigning all federal food safety functions.
Solving the problem will require a group effort by food producers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers, along with strong leadership from federal, state, and local government, TFAH said.
"Fixing Food Safety: Protecting America's Food from Farm-to-Fork" is available on TFAH's Web site, www.healthyamericans.org. The report was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Trust for America's Health is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting the health of communities and working to make disease prevention a national priority.