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US bill would boost FDA powers, increase food and drug inspections

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 29-Jan-2009

Related topics: Regulation, The peanut product salmonella scandal

Legislation unveiled in the House of Representatives this week would increase Food and Drug Administration powers and the frequency of safety inspections – but would require industry to cover the cost.

The bill – proposed by Democrats on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee – would require food companies to be inspected at least once every four years, and drug companies at least every two, but would require manufacturers to pay fees to the FDA.

The proposed legislation comes at a time when several food industry organizations have been calling for increased powers for the FDA, which currently only has the power to request companies to implement voluntary recalls. The FDA also provides advice to manufacturers who initiate their own voluntary recall procedures.

FDA funding

While it welcomed the move on the whole, a spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “We believe that food safety is a right that all Americans have – like defense and infrastructure – and that it should be paid for by Congress appropriating general funds.”

The GMA was one of ten organizations representing the food industry that signed letters to both the House of Representatives and the Senate last week urging reform of the FDA in order to better guarantee food safety, but its support for granting the FDA additional powers goes back further.

“This is something we have been calling for, for at least a year,” said the spokesperson.

Administering recalls

He rejected, however, the idea that granting the FDA additional powers would speed up the process of administering product recalls.

“No company has any incentive at all to knowingly provide contaminated products to its clients,” he said. “Food safety and consumer confidence is priority number one, so it is in a company’s best interests to withdraw a product immediately.”

Signatories to the letters included the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Food Marketing Institute, among others.

FDA’s salmonella response

Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also criticized the FDA’s response to the salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products, and said: “Without mandates for recall and few inspectors, the agency’s ability to protect the public is minimal. This latest outbreak proves again that FDA is woefully inadequate to the task of protecting American consumers from unsafe food. It presently inspects low risk peanut butter plants rarely, or not at all, leaving the job to state inspection agencies.”

The FDA came under increased pressure when it emerged that it had outsourced inspections of a Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) plant in Georgia, currently at the center of the salmonella outbreak in which eight people have died.

The PCA facility has now been confirmed as the source of a salmonella strain that has caused 502 illnesses across 43 states and one in Canada. 108 of those have been hospitalized.