Wave of Regulatory and Legislative Activity Addresses U.S. Food Safety System

May 7, 2007

FDA has come under fire from U.S. lawmakers and public interest groups for its handling of a spate of recent food contamination outbreaks concerning E. coli-contaminated bagged spinach, salmonella-contaminated peanut butter, and melamine-contaminated pet food and animal feed.  Speaking at a recent congressional hearing, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler stated that major improvements were needed from Congress, the industry, and FDA:

FDA scientists are ill-resourced to do the research necessary to turn scientific findings about foodborne illness into practical guidance that food companies can implement to make our food supply safer.  This lack of scientific leadership does not make the headlines, but there is no question that one of the greatest losses from lack of resources is the Agency’s ability to serve as a leading voice on sound scientific decision-making.

In an effort to address concerns about the food safety system, on May 1, 2007 FDA announced the creation of the position of Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection (a “food safety czar”).  The position will be filled by Dr. David Acheson, who is the current chief medical officer and director of the Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Dr. Acheson has been involved in the investigation of E. coli-contaminated spinach, the peanut butter recall, and the recent recall of melamine-contaminated pet food.

FDA’s new food safety czar is to “advise and counsel . . . the [FDA] Commissioner on strategic and substantive food safety and food defense matters.” He is expected to work with individual FDA product centers and the Office of Regulatory Affairs, to coordinate FDA’s food safety and food defense assignments and commitments, and to serve as liaison to other U.S. departments and agencies influencing food safety.  One of his first projects will be to develop a strategy to identify potential gaps in the food safety system and determine how to fill those gaps.

Some lawmakers do not believe that the creation of a food safety czar is the answer to addressing the nation’s food safety problems.  Instead, they suggest that the increase in outbreaks of foodborne illnesses is the result of a systemic problem that can only be solved by creating a single food safety agency. Such calls are nothing new.  In the 90s, the General Accounting Office and others called for the creation of a single food safety agency. In recent years, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced several bills aimed at creating a single food safety agency.  For example, Sen. Durbin and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced The Safe Food Act (S. 654 and H.R. 1148), which is intended to give FDA the authority to order mandatory recalls and fine companies that do not promptly report contamination of food. The bill, if enacted, would also establish a single food safety agency.

Acknowledging, however, that the political climate is not right for such a dramatic change, on May 2, 2007, Sen. Durbin proposed amendments to S.1082, which reauthorizes the Prescription Drug User Fee Act.  The amendments, if enacted, would, among other things, establish “an early warning and notification system for human food, as well as pet food, establish fines for companies that don’t promptly report contaminated products, [improve] inspections/monitoring of imports, and [provide] better, more uniform pet food safety standards.” 

By Riëtte van Laack

Categories: Foods