The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to fulfill its promise of making the food supply safer, say US health officials.
Following well publicized food recalls and health scares over the past few years, which have left hundreds ill and affected consumer confidence, the FDA announced wide sweeping plans to improve the safety of the nation's food supply, with measures including more stringent inspections, stronger penalties and mandatory recalls.
These included the FDA's Food Protection Plan, which was proposed last November, and is built around prevention, intervention and response.
However, with food scares continuing, including the recent detection of salmonella in tomatoes, there are concerns on whether improvements will begin to appear.
This week, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing called American lives still at risk: when will FDA's food protection plan be fully funded and implemented?
Rep John Dingell, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, said the overriding theme of such meetings is FDA's "inadequate resources or incompetent management".
Food Protection Plan
The FDA's Food Protection Plan is built around three core elements: prevention, intervention and response.
It will promote increased corporate responsibility, increased collaboration and communication with stakeholders, and a broad risk-based approach to food protection.
Under the plan, FDA will also be able to issue additional preventive controls for high-risk foods, accredit third parties for voluntary food inspections, increase access to food records during emergencies, and issue a mandatory recall if voluntary recalls are not effective.
Both the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed concerns over the lack of details in achieving the aims of the plan.
Dingell said: "The Food Protection Plan is a solid first step in articulating how to fix our broken food safety system. If, however, the Administration is serious about implementing this plan, it must work with us to provide the details and draft the legislation to fix the current system, including a realistic assessment of its resource requirements."
A statement from the GAO said: "Since FDA's Food Protection Plan was first released in November 2007, FDA has added few details on the resources and strategies required to implement the plan. FDA plans to spend about $90 million over fiscal years 2008 and 2009 to implement several key actions, such as identifying food vulnerabilities and risk."
This amount, it said, is insufficient.
The latest food scare, of tomatoes contaminated with salmonella, has left 167 people sick in 17 states. Critics say this is a demonstration of the poor performance of the FDA, whose job it is to secure food safety.
However, writing in an FDA blog, Andrew von Eschenbach, commissioner for food and drugs, said the reaction to the problem was swift.
He admitted though that "even with this great response and intervention, we must do better".
The industry is still awaiting a progress report on the plan, which was intended for publication at the start of this month.