Federal inspections of food manufacturing facilities and federal enforcement actions against food companies are decreasing, according to a government report released this week.

According to a new report from the Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspects less than a quarter of food facilities every year, and more than half of all food facilities have gone five or more years without a federal inspection.

Public health officials, consumer advocates, and members of Congress who have been pressing for an overhaul of the FDA’s capacity to regulate the food supply say the the report is further evidence the Senate needs to act on pending food safety legislation. The House passed a similar food safety bill in July, which would give FDA mandatory recall authority, greater access to records, and require food facilities to have food safety plans.
“We need legislation that will direct us and empower us to be proactive, not reactive,” Michael R. Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, told the Washington Post this week after the report was released. “The legislation pending in Congress will open up entirely new and much more effective ways to do prevention.”

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Health, Education, and Labor Committee, which unanimously approved the Senate food safety bill in November, echoed the same support for the pending legislation.

“This new report shows what we have feared for too long: that that our domestic food facilities are not being adequately inspected and FDA needs additional authorities to keep the food on our tables safe,” said Harkin in a statement yesterday. “This is unacceptable in our modern society and an important reminder that we must provide FDA with the needed tools to properly inspect food facilities and effectively react to problems in order to ensure the safety of the food American families eat.  Quite simply, picking up food at the grocery store should not be a health risk.”

“This legislation is long overdue and it is my hope that we can soon pass the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 on the Senate floor in order to get the bill reconciled with the House and on the President’s desk to be signed into law,” he said.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), chair of a powerful food and agriculture appropriations subcommittee, reacted similarly.

“The findings in this report are unacceptable and should serve as an urgent reminder of the glaring weaknesses in our food safety system. The FDA should be inspecting all of the facilities it is responsible for–with no exceptions. Congress needs to act quickly to pass stronger food safety legislation this year, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to better protect American consumers.”

The full report is available here: http://bit.ly/9y7lN3 (pdf)