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FDA Missed Chance to Improve Import Food Safety Four Years Ago, Says Former Official

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More than four years ago, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was presented with several proposals to improve the way the agency policed imported foods, but it ignored every one of them. Now, after several highly publicized scares involving dangerous imported food, the FDA is finally looking to Congress for more power and funding for its food safety programs.

Benjamin England, a formal FDA official, told a House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday that four years ago, the agency failed to implement hundreds of proposed solutions to specific import safety problems. Those proposals were all part of the FDA’s Strategic Import Plan formulated to deal with imported products under FDA jurisdiction. England claimed that the neglected proposals would have “enabled the FDA to begin to progressively focus its limited resources where the risks are indeed greatest.”

The FDA has jurisdiction over 80% of the US food supply. But while food imports increase by 15% every year, the FDA inspects only about 1.3 percent of all of the foods under its oversight. England said that instead, the FDA has used most of its resources to oversee domestic food safety. And when dealing with imported foods, the agency relies too much on documents like invoices and ship manifests that do not include information on product origins or ingredients, rather than real-time inspections.

This year, the FDA’s oversight of imported foods has come under scrutiny, as more and more products have been recalled over safety issues. Foods from China, particularly seafood laced with illegal levels of antibiotics and toxic pet food ingredients, have been of special concern. The outcry over those scandals has led the FDA to reexamine its food safety procedures, especially regarding imported products.

During yesterday’s hearing, Assistant FDA Commissioner Dr. David Acheson told the committee that the agency needed new powers in order to insure the safety of a rising tide of food imports. Dr. Acheson has been charged with designing a new food safety proposal, which he said would cause the agency to seek new authority.

Dr. Acheson also said that his new proposal would likely drastically change the way the FDA approaches food safety. Currently the FDA is reactive, and steps up inspections of particular foods when problems arise. Dr. Acheson said that he favors a more “risk-based” approach that would focus on high-risk products and countries whose imports have a troublesome track record.

Food safety concerns have caused so much alarm, that now even the food manufacturing industry is asking for more FDA regulation – something unheard of in the past. Recent surveys have shown that food safety issues have undermined consumer confidence in the country’s food supply, and manufacturers are concerned that this could hurt their profits. Yesterday, a spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers of American, one of the largest industry trade groups, told the committee that the organization favored more power for the FDA.

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