July 17, 2007 -- The FDA's food safety inspections came under fire in Congress Tuesday after a congressional investigation showed the agency inspects only a minute fraction of imports.
Investigators from a House committee told lawmakers that FDA inspectors scrutinize less than 1% of all import shipments coming through U.S. ports. The report comes at a time of high public scrutiny caused by tainted shipments of toothpaste, pet food, and farmed seafood, all from China.
"Committee staff learned that FDA inspects less than 1% of all imported foods and samples only a fraction of those it inspects. While the number of FDA inspectors has been falling since 2003, the importation of food products into the United States has nearly doubled," said David Nelson, an investigator for the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee.
Lawmakers of both parties blasted an FDA plan to close seven of its 13 regional food safety labs as part of a streamlining effort.
Labs in Philadelphia, Oakland, Calif., and Detroit are among those on the agency's chopping block. Another, the FDA's animal feed testing lab in Denver, was where FDA scientists quickly came up with a test for melamine, the chemical found in pet food in May after it sickened thousands of dogs and cats.
Melamine is a nitrogen-containing molecule that has several industrial uses. It has been used as a fertilizer in some parts of the world, but melamine isn't a registered fertilizer in the U.S.
"We are not closing laboratories with the idea of eliminating functionality," FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, told lawmakers. "This is intended to bring FDA's laboratory infrastructure into the 21st century," he said.
Food Safety in the News
A series of recent food safety scares have rocked the FDA at a time when questions over its policing of the drug supply already have focused the public's attention on the agency.
Earlier this month the FDA placed a freeze on imports of five species of farmed fish from China, including catfish and seafood. That was just days after the agency alerted the public that discount stores throughout the country were stocking Chinese toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, the main toxic component of antifreeze.
Earlier, in 2006, E. coli contamination of spinach grown in California caused recalls in stores across the country.
"The FDA has become almost totally reactive," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the chair of the House committee with jurisdiction over the FDA, said he would soon introduce legislation increasing the FDA's food inspection budget and its number of agents. Dingell attacked the FDA's lab closure plan as shortsighted at a time when the agency is battling a seemingly increasing number of food safety problems.
"We must ask how that is going to better consumer safety in the United States," Dingell said.
A bill funding the FDA is due to hit the House floor later this week. Lawmakers said they were lobbying to include last-minute language stopping the FDA's lab closure plan from going into effect.