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FDA fails to reach state food safety audit targets

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 07-May-2009

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken another blow as a US news organization published figures on Thursday showing it is failing to meet its goals for auditing individual states’ food safety inspections.

The FDA aims to audit at least seven percent of food safety inspections that are carried out by state authorities on its behalf, in order to ensure they come up to a satisfactory standard. But it only reached that goal in 17 of the 39 states it paid to carry out inspections during the 2007-08 audit year, according to a USA Today report.

The efficacy of state inspections came under scrutiny earlier this year during the salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products from a Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) plant in Blakely, Georgia.

Speaking in a conference call with reporters in January, the FDA’s Michael Rogers said that the federal agency had not inspected the contaminated plant in 2007 or 2008, but had contracted inspections out to Georgia state officials. Those inspections found only a few violations at the facility, even though the PCA’s internal food safety assessments found the presence of salmonella at least twelve times.

FDA improvement

The USA Today report said that FDA’s figures for auditing food safety inspections have improved, however. In the 2006-07 audit year, it did not meet its seven percent target in 21 of 37 states, and there were no audits at all in eight states. Moreover, in 1998, the FDA carried out no audits in 21 of 38 states.

The report said that one of the reasons for this poor record is that foodborne illness outbreaks divert FDA staff from the audit process.

PCA state inspections

In the Peanut Corporation of America case, Georgia’s state officials defended their inspections, saying that they had far fewer resources than the FDA assessment that was carried out after the plant’s connection with the salmonella outbreak. While state officials examine a plant in two to three hours, the FDA’s later examination involved up to seven inspectors over 14 days. That inspection revealed four strains of salmonella, mold, cockroaches, and a peanut roaster incapable of killing salmonella.

Furthermore, Texas health officials closed down another PCA processing plant in Plainview, Texas, after they discovered dead rodents, droppings and bird feathers in a crawl gap above a food production area. The PCA’s Texas plant had not been inspected since it first opened in March 2005 because the company had failed to apply for a Texas license, meaning that state authorities did not know it existed, the Department of Social and Health Services said.

At least 691 people were sickened by the outbreak, which has been linked to nine deaths.

In the wake of the outbreak, the US food safety system has come under sharp scrutiny, with many food industry groups, consumers and politicians calling for FDA reform.

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