FDA: The definition of Toothless

Do you recall the Spinach-E.Coli incidents from last September? Do you remember the peanut butter recall earlier this year? The FDA remembers, because they knew that there were problems with both of these products about a year prior to their respective outbreaks.

In late 2005, a year before a deadly outbreak of E. coli in spinach, the Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to California growers expressing its “serious concern” over ongoing outbreaks of food borne illness from that state’s lettuce and spinach crops. CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

There had been 19 outbreaks since 1995.


In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up.

You’re going to hear more about the FDA today as the Democratic-controlled Congress is holding a hearing as to determine what is going wrong at the agency.

In the interest of time, however, I can provide a brief synopsis of the problems at hand.

  1. The FDA is understaffed.
  2. The FDA is underfunded. Consider the following – For 2008. The USDA has a proposed budget of 20 Billion dollars, the FDA has a proposed budget of 1.6 billion. Yet the FDA is responsible for overseeing 80% of the food items sold in the United States.
  3. The FDA lacks any authority. The snippet above regarding ConAgra is the perfect illustration of this. When the FDA requested documentation regarding a batch of peanut butter that was destroyed, ConAgra provided…well, nothing. In response to ConAgra’s inaction, the FDA simply walked away, as there was little in the way of legal recourse available to them.

There. I just saved you from watching C-Span for 8 hours. You can thank me later.

Meanwhile, considering the FDA’s failing, I wonder why they are even there in the first place. If they are understaffed, underfunded, and lack any legal authority to provide even a minimal amount of food safety oversight, why have them at all? It’s more expensive in the long run to maintain a false sense of security, than it is to be realistic about the safety of our food supply.

Of course I would love a Food agency that could provide an adequate level of oversight to the food producers and importers of this country. But with a presidential administration that sees any regulation as an abhorrence, and a overall budget that has spending out of control, there’s little chance that adequate funding will be supplied, at least in the short term.

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