FDA food checks found lacking

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The Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for most of the food that comes into the U.S., inspects between 1 percent and 2 percent of that food.

The agency is drawing criticism as concerns rise about tainted imports of Chinese food and drugs, from toothpaste to seafood to pet food that is blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats.

Former Associate FDA Commissioner William K. Hubbard said the recent problems with Chinese food imports “should be a wake-up call to official Washington.”

“If they don’t get it at this point, that a weak FDA threatens us all, then they’re really blind to the facts,” said Mr. Hubbard, who worked at the FDA from the Jimmy Carter through the George W. Bush administrations.

FDA inspections of animal, infant and human food from 2002 to 2006 varied between 1.15 percent and 1.88 percent, according to Domenic Veneziano, the FDA’s director of import inspections and policy.

Inspections of all products that the FDA supervises, including such products as drugs, cosmetics, medical devices and electronic products that emit radiation, range from 0.8 percent to 1.3 percent.

The FDA regulates all foods except most meat and poultry — limiting its regulation in this category to game, such as venison, ostrich and snake, which is the only meat not already regulated by the Agriculture Department. Altogether, the FDA oversees 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, a percentage that FDA spokeswoman Julie Zawisza said is “probably similar” for food imports.

The percentage of inspections is somewhat misleading, however, because the FDA tracks “import lines,” which are products in one shipment, rather than import volume. A truck containing 500 bags of flour, 300 cases of tomatoes and 10 boxes of cantaloupes would have three such “lines.”

The amount of lines FDA inspectors are responsible for has jumped from just under 2 million in 1991 to an estimated 16.3 million this year.

Food imports have risen 15 percent annually over the last 10 years.

The FDA’s budget, although it has climbed, is not keeping up.

FDA money and staffing for inspection of food imports rose after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Spending on inspections after that initial jump has increased from $63.1 million in fiscal 2003 to an estimated $67.2 million for fiscal 2007, which ends Oct. 1, but critics say food safety increases have not kept up with inflation.

The number of full-time inspection positions has dropped. Although the number of jobs jumped from 217 in fiscal 2002 to 536 in fiscal 2003, it has since dropped to an estimated 463 in fiscal 2007.

Ms. Zawisza said the FDA is “very committed to food safety” and has “dedicated many staff hours and resources toward this program area.”

“Actually, the systems we have in place are working very well to identify unsafe food products, whether imported or domestically produced, and we have acted extremely quickly to resolve the problems we have seen,” she said.

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