Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a new report, Keeping America's Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which examines problems with the fragmented and antiquated current system and proposes ways to improve the food safety functions at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to better protect the nation's food supply.
"Our food safety system is plagued with problems, and it's leading to millions of Americans becoming needlessly sick each year," said Jeff Levi, Ph.D., executive director of TFAH. "The system is outdated and unable to effectively deal with today's threats. Its current structure actually prevents the kind of coordinated, focused effort that Americans need more than ever and have a right to expect."
The report calls for the immediate consolidation of food safety leadership within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and ultimately the creation of a separate Food Safety Administration within HHS. Currently, no FDA official whose full-time job is food safety has line authority over all food safety functions. A speedy effort by the Obama administration to consolidate leadership within FDA, followed by Congressional action to create a separate Food Safety Administration, would both ensure immediate progress on food safety and create a platform for long-term success in reducing foodborne illness.
President Barack Obama recently called for restructuring and improving the U.S. food safety system. This report helps provide a road map for the first steps toward revamping the system.
"Food safety needs to be a priority on the prevention menu," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "We shouldn't have to worry about our children getting sick from their school lunch or from a family meal at a restaurant. And we shouldn't have to wait until people become sick to learn about food safety problems. We need modern, comprehensive ways of preventing and detecting problems before food gets to the table."
Approximately 80 percent of the food supply is regulated by FDA — including millions of food producers, processors, transporters, storage facilities, grocery stores, and restaurants — and the vast majority of known foodborne illnesses are associated with products regulated by FDA. Some recent problems associated with products regulated by FDA include the 2009 Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter and peanut butter products; potential imports of the 2008 melamine-contaminated infant formula and related diary products in China; the 2008 Salmonella outbreak in peppers; and a 2008 Salmonella outbreak from imported cantaloupes.
Some key problems with the current structure of food safety programs at HHS include:
• Inadequate leadership, prioritization, and coordination. No FDA official whose full-time job is food safety has line authority over all food safety functions. FDA's three major food safety components are managed separately, hampering efforts to effectively prevent disease outbreaks.
• Inadequate technologies and inspection practices. Current laws and practices are antiquated. Existing laws date back to 1906 and 1938, and policies are disproportionately focused on monitoring food after it has been produced, instead of trying to prevent and detect problems throughout the entire production process. And there is no system in place to keep inspection practices up-to-date with the constantly modernizing food production technologies and practices.
• Inadequate staffing and resources. The FDA's Science Board found the agency is chronically underfunded. While the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports the turnover rate in FDA science staff in key areas, including food safety, is twice that of other government agencies.
• Inadequate inspection of imports. Only 1 percent of imported foods are currently inspected, even though approximately 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood Americans consume is imported.
"FDA certainly needs a modern food safety law and more resources, but to make good use of these tools, HHS needs a unified and elevated management structure for food safety that can implement a science- and risk-based food safety program dedicated to preventing foodborne illness," said Michael R. Taylor, JD, research professor of Health Policy at the School of Public Health at The George Washington University and Former Deputy Commissioner for Policy at FDA and former administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA.
"Major organizational change requires careful planning and implementation and should not be rushed, but the time is ripe for building sustainable solutions to the problems in our nation's food safety system," he added.
The Keeping America's Food Safe report recommends:
• Increasing and aligning resources with the highest-risk threats;
• Modernizing the mandate and legal authority of the HHS Secretary to prevent illness, which would include enforcing the duty of food companies to implement modern preventive controls and meet government-established food safety performance standards;
• Immediately establishing a Deputy Commissioner at FDA with line authority over all food safety programs, including the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and the food functions of the Office of Regulatory Affairs, as an interim step toward creating a Food Safety Administration;
• Working through Congress toward the creation of a Food Safety Administration within HHS, strategically aligning and elevating the food safety functions currently housed at FDA and better coordinating regulation policies and practices with the surveillance and detection of outbreak functions at CDC and with food safety agencies at the state and local level.
The report was supported by a grant from RWJF.
Trust for America's Health is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to saving lives by protecting the health of every community and working to make disease prevention a national priority.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the quality of the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful, and timely change.