June 8, 2010
Report highlights steps FDA should take to prevent food-borne illnesses
The abilities of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to discover potential threats to food safety and prevent outbreaks of food-borne illness are hampered by inadequate funds and staff, impediments to efficient use of its resources, and a piecemeal approach to gathering and using information on risks, according to a new report by an Institute of Medicine and National Research Council committee led by a University of Iowa professor.
To more proactively tackle food safety problems, the FDA should implement a risk-based approach to pinpoint where along the food production, distribution and handling lines there is the greatest potential for contamination and other problems, said the committee, chaired by Robert Wallace, M.D., professor of epidemiology in the UI College of Public Health. The agency would then be able to direct appropriate resources to those areas and increase the chances of catching problems before they flare into widespread outbreaks.
"As the recent illnesses traced to sprouts and lettuce underscore, food-borne diseases cause significant suffering, so it's imperative that our food safety system functions effectively at all levels," Wallace said. "The FDA uses some risk assessment and management tactics, but the agency's approach is too often reactive and lacks a systematic focus on prevention. Our report's recommendations aim to help the FDA achieve a comprehensive vision for proactively protecting against threats to the nation's food supply."
The report offers the FDA a blueprint for developing the components of a risk-based model. It also outlines several organizational steps the agency should take to improve the efficiency of its many food safety activities, such as increasing coordination with other state and federal agencies that share responsibility for protecting the nation's food supply.
In addition, the report says Congress should consider amending the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to provide explicitly and in detail the authorities FDA needs to fulfill its food safety mission.
The FDA is responsible for approximately 80 percent of the nation's food supply, including seafood, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables. Although it is not the sole organization with oversight of food safety -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture handles meat, poultry, and egg products, and state and local agencies share in conducting food facility inspections, surveillance, and investigations of outbreaks -- recent outbreaks of food-borne illness led to a congressional request for a review of gaps in the FDA's food safety system.
The agency has been criticized repeatedly for not conducting adequate surveillance and inspection of food suppliers and distributors and for taking a largely reactive approach to food safety overall. Given that FDA is responsible for more than 150,000 food facilities, more than 1 million restaurants and other retail food establishments, and more than 2 million farms as well as millions of tons of imports, however, it lacks the resources to sufficiently monitor the entire food supply, the committee noted.
NOTE TO EDITORS AND NEWS DIRECTORS: This news release includes information provided by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM news release and report will be available at http://www.iom.edu/.
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STORY SOURCE: The University of Iowa College of Public Health Office of Communications and External Relations, 4257 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242
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