Why President Obama and Congress turned their backs on food safety



Two decades ago, the FDA oversaw 200,000 imports; last year there were 12 million, accounting for roughly 15 percent of the nation’s food supply…

But the part of the government responsible for keeping kids’ peanut butter safe was a chronically understaffed unit of the FDA called the Office of Regulatory Affairs.

In 2009, ORA had fewer than 700 food inspectors (calculated in full-time employees) to cover hundreds of thousands of food facilities. By comparison, at the Department of Agriculture, which oversees all meat processing, the ratio is flipped: There’s more than one inspector for every one of the 6,200 facilities, and they’re on site around the clock. That level of scrutiny is a vestige of Teddy Roosevelt’s reforms: Meat companies by law aren’t allowed to operate without an inspector on hand. The FDA has had no similar mandate, so its workforce never kept pace…

U.S. food companies might get inspected every four to five years, and the overwhelming majority of foreign producers never get inspected at all. The ORA now has about 1,100 food-safety inspectors — a seemingly large increase since 2009 but still a tiny force compared with the 377,000 domestic and foreign facilities it is nominally in charge of monitoring.

The FDA’s foods program also has significantly lagged in funding over the years. In the 1970s, close to half the agency’s budget was spent on food safety and nutrition. Today, it’s closer to one-fifth. Spending on drugs and medical device programs has boomed — a trend fueled largely by industry user fees. Drug and device companies have an economic incentive to keep FDA well-staffed to speed product approvals, but there is no such incentive for food-safety inspections…

It turned out that the ice cream was contaminated with listeria that was present in two of Blue Bell’s plants — one in Texas, where the company is based, and one in Oklahoma. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now linked 10 illnesses, going back to 2010, to the company’s ice cream.

The company, FDA discovered in March, had known for two years that it had an issue with listeria in its Oklahoma plant, but it wasn’t required to report its findings to the agency because of a technicality about how close to the food the bacteria was found…

They’re the kind of improvements recommended by food-safety experts who know what the public doesn’t. That, for example, the United States imports 80 percent of its seafood and roughly half of its fruits and vegetables but inspects less than 2 percent of that and tests even less…

Last month, Brad Frey was in Washington, on a trip funded by Pew, to share his story about his mother’s death. He met with the offices of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who is on the Appropriations Committee. The senators were receptive to his call to fund the law, he said, but they also quickly noted that Republicans are in charge…

Anatomy of a food-borne illness outbreak

A Halloween treat: Before Halloween, Shirlee Frey, 81, bought caramel apples to share with her four grandchildren. Several days later, Frey grew faint, hit her head and was airlifted to Stanford Medical Center in California for surgery to relieve brain bleeding. Doctors initially were optimistic, but days later, her condition worsened. On Thanksgiving, Frey became unresponsive. On Dec. 2, doctors determined she had listeriosis, a foodborne infection that can be dangerous for pregnant women and adults with weak immune systems…

Self-testing failure: In September, Bidart had voluntarily tested one set of samples for listeria — out of millions of apples — and the tests were negative. Testing just one sample is “worse than doing nothing because if it’s negative, it gives a false sense of security,” said Mansour Samadpour, a testing expert.

To the marijuana industry:  Testing one bud from a large crop will not give an accurate THC/CBD count, nor will it show if parts of the batch have been contaminated with something like mold.

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