WASHINGTON The exponential growth in imports is exposing the nation’s food supply to dire safety risks, but government watchdogs lack the resources to react accordingly, lamented a gathering here of self-professed “stakeholders.”
The assertion by consumer advocates, regulatory officials, food processors, lawyers and trade association representatives was supported by a federal study that was leaked to The New York Times a few days later. The Government Accounting Office observed in the report that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would need 1,900 years under its current budget and setup to inspect all 190,000 of the foreign plants whose output is now being shipped into the country.
At the Food Safety: Problems & Solutions conference, held recently here, an FDA official said imported food sources had actually swelled to a count of 800,000, and a colleague indicated they were dispersed through 433 countries.
The FDA officials acknowledged that the agency is hamstrung in its food safety role by funding and communications issues.
“Funding is a critical issue at FDA and we have been looking for an increase in funding for [fiscal 2009, which begins in October],” said Tevi Troy, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the FDA. “You can’t solve the problem without resources.”
Other participants expressed far more alarm about the situation.
“The FDA regions are starved. They do not have the resources to step up and do what they need to do,” said James O’Reilly, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati and a counsel with the law firm Baker & Daniels.
“The agency is so critically short-funded right now that it can’t meet its mission,” agreed Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
But that mission is growing in complexity and scope as food imports, and ready-to-eat items in particular, continue to surge. More than 60 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States were grown outside its borders, and 70 percent of the nation’s seafood was shipped here from other places, said Steve Steingart, assistant chief of the food safety program for Allegheny County, Pa., and president of the Association of Food and Drug Officials.
During the conference, Craig Henry of the Grocery Manufacturers Association showed a picture of a Chicken Cordon Bleu, a relatively simple entrŽe consisting of chicken, cheese, ham and bread crumbs. That single dish incorporated ingredients from more than 10 nations, Craig said, stressing that imports are more integral to the U.S. food supply than many people realize.
“And yet the federal agencies and the state and local agencies don’t have the resources” to safeguard that growing component of the nation’s food, said Craig, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs and chief operating officer for the association. “The mandates far exceed the resources.
“We’ve got to have the adequate funding — I can’t say that enough," he said. "And I’m not talking about pocket change.”
Craig’s employer, an association of packaged-goods manufacturers, is part of an ad hoc advocacy group called the Alliance for a Stronger FDA. That body has recommended that the FDA’s budget be bumped up by $470 million over a five-year period, “which would basically double” the organization’s funding, Craig said. And, he and others asserted during the conference, that sum may still be too low.
“A billion dollars is a good, round number,” Craig said.
David Lazarus, a legislative assistant to Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, said the Senate Agriculture Committee had added $60 million to the White House’s requested budget for the FDA. Durbin, a Democrat, serves on that committee.