The FDA has acknowledged that it's not up to the task of monitoring a global food network that includes nearly 440,000 facilities in 170 countries. But that's not all.
Federal law prevents citizens, reporters, watchdogs or anyone else from finding the answers to even basic questions about those facilities, the origins of ingredients they use, or the frequency of inspections.
The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 required food manufacturers to register with the Food and Drug Administration so it would be prepared to detect and eliminate contamination in the food supply. The act also prohibited the FDA from revealing that information to the public.
Of 439,240 registered facilities, 64.3 percent are located abroad, in at least 170 foreign countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
Food safety and environmental laws in many countries are less strict than our own, and the FDA inspects only a fraction of facilities and imported goods. Domestic producers have been implicated in the recent human food recalls, and Chinese rice protein and wheat gluten makers have been implicated in the pet food recall.
"The underlying issue is the FDA's program isn't working," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In January, the Government Accountability Office added the nation's Food Safety system to its list of 27 "high risk" areas that need immediate and fundamental improvement. Some of the words the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress used to describe the current system included, "piecemeal," "fragmented," "inconsistent," "inefficient" and "ineffective."
The GAO found the FDA did not compare well to its sister agency, the Department of Agriculture. Both are responsible for food safety, but have jurisdiction over different products.
The USDA spends 80 percent of the nation's food inspection budget monitoring 20 percent of the food supply meat, poultry and eggs. The FDA spends 20 percent of the budget monitoring everything else 80 percent of the food supply.
The USDA requires imported products in its jurisdiction to meet the same standards as those produced in the United States. The FDA does not.
While the USDA inspects every slaughtered carcass and every processing facility under its jurisdiction daily, the FDA has no set inspection schedule for the nearly 440,000 facilities it polices.
Improvements in USDA inspections have been credited with reducing the incidence of illness associated with bad meat and eggs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently noted an increase in illnesses associated with vegetables, a food in the FDA's jurisdiction.
"Poultry, beef, pork all of that food is well inspected by USDA. There is not a similar inspection regime at FDA," said Alex Fidis, a health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "They're inspected, but not with frequency to ensure that the food passing through there is safe."
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