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FDA food safety problems blamed on lack of funding

By George Reynolds , 25-Apr-2007

Years of under-funding and a lack of trained staff account for failings by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) in preventing contamination outbreaks, legislators said yesterday.

The criticism made by Rep. John Dingell, at the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations hearing, follows calls by fellow Democrat Henry Waxman for more FDA funding to increase inspections. Budget increases to fund more inspections with a wider remit are likely now both houses are under Democratic control. Dingell also said the FDA was using valuable resources to chase too many imports, which had contributed to the disillusionment of many of its employees. "I have watched the FDA chase too many imports with too few resources for too many years," Dingell said. "Whether the life-threatening product is a counterfeit drug or tainted food, the FDA lacks enough properly trained and motivated personnel to do an increasingly difficult job." The subcommittee heard testimonies from victims of contamination outbreaks, including recent incidents involving salmonella in peanut butter and E.coli in spinach. A second day of hearings, expected to take place in the coming weeks, will hear testimonies from FDA field management staff on their operations in light of the problems. This week, The Washington Post, revealed that documents and other evidence showed the FDA knew that contamination problems existed at the ConAgra peanut plant in Georgia, and green vegetable farms in California. The FDA investigated an alleged case of salmonella in peanut butter manufactured at the plant in 2004, but only took limited steps on the assumption the ConAgra would act. Overwhelmed by huge growth in the number of food processors and imports, the agency was short of resources to deal with increased demand for its services, records obtained by The Washington Post reveal. The outbreak, which has not been directly linked to the problems identified previously, was discovered when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found a spike in the incidents of salmonella related illnesses in states near the ConAgra plant. The Peter Pan and Great Value branded products have been linked to sickness that affected at least 425 people across 44 states. Evidence suggests the FDA knew about the illnesses caused by E.coli contamination of spinach and other green vegetables from Salinas Valley, California, for even longer. In a letter sent to California growers in 2005, the FDA said it was aware that 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 implicated the pathogen in fresh or fresh-cut lettuce, with an additional case implicating spinach, according to the Washington Post. In September 2006, three people died and more than 200 people fell ill after eating spinach contaminated with E.coli, which investigators traced to back Californian spinach. Further cases involving contamination and the recent incidence involving imported Chinese animal feed - also regulated by the FDA - which has led to a massive pet food recall and potentially poses a risk to the nations livestock, serve to demonstrate resources are not meeting industry and public requirements. In a fact sheet published by Waxman in October 2006, the FDA's food division were said to be $135m short of funding for 2006, despite a budget increase to $439m from $407m in 2005, due to increased personnel costs and new terrorism responsibilities. The fact sheet also said that produce-related outbreaks had increased from 44 in 1998 to 86 in 2004. In the US an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur each year, causing about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to CDC statistics for 2005.

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