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FDA Cutting Down on Food Safety Inspections

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The Food and Drug Administration , the federal agency that has been warning the public about recent E.Coli and salmonella outbreaks connected with tainted spinach and peanut butter, is conducting only half the food safety inspections now than it did three years ago.

According to an Associated Press news report posted on the MSNBC Website, these cuts come in the wake of several well-publicized food recalls in recent months. The article says a database analysis of federal records by the Associated Press shows that between 2003 and 2006, FDA’s food safety inspections dropped 47 percent.

“We have a food safety crisis on the horizon,” said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

The analysis also shows that: a. There are 12 percent fewer FDA employees in field offices who focus on food issues and b. Safety tests for U.S. produced food have dropped 75 percent, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year.

After Sept. 11, FDA increased the number of food inspectors fearing a terrorist threat. But the number started falling quickly and steadily after the year 2003, wiping away whatever positive results the agency had achieved from the increase in inspections.

And now it’s getting worse, which comes as no surprise to me. Now there are more facilities to inspect and more imported food. It’s clear from the spinach and lettuce E.Coli outbreaks and latest recall involving salmonella-tainted peanut butter produced by ConAgra Inc. that has sickened at least 329 people across 41 states.

Just as an example to show the inefficiency of the federal agency, FDA had last inspected ConAgra’s plant in Georgia in February 2005 and found no problems. The article also states that while the FDA is supposed to inspect plants that produce fresh fruit and vegetables every year because of the high risk factor, such inspections are done only once in three years.

This is clearly the case of a federal agency dropping the ball on identifying, upholding and enforcing food safety standards. What are these officials thinking? We’re at the threshold of a major outbreak and they cut down on inspections? There’s something seriously wrong with this kind of thinking.

If anything, the FDA should be on a whirlwind public education and awareness campaign, teaching people about food-borne illnesses, how to prevent them and how to look for symptoms. They should be getting together with restaurant owners, food production and distribution centers to talk about how to make the foods safer and make it clear that there is no room for compromise when it comes to safety standards.

But such a lukewarm response from a federal agency is extremely disappointing and disheartening. As an attorney who had dealt with numerous food-poisoning cases, including the current ConAgra peanut butter salmonella outbreak and as someone who has gone through the food poisioning experience personally, I strongly believe that the FDA needs to reassess its position and do what’s best for America.

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