Yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing to discuss the role and performance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in ensuring food safety. The hearing was the twelfth of its kind since a nationwide E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to spinach sickened 205 and killed five.

The focus of this hearing, however, was on two government reports issued by the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), respectively, addressing various deficiencies in the nation’s food safety system. The hearing also discussed potential legislative remedies, such as the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is languishing in the Senate behind the financial services bill.  

The GAO’s report, which was published in September 2009, identified several gaps in FDA’s oversight of imported foods. For instance, the report found that although 50 percent of produce and 80 percent of seafood in America is imported, FDA is largely without the means to punish foreign importers who may violate U.S. safety regulations. Moreover, FDA’s lack of collaboration with other government agencies, such as the Customs and Border Protection (CMB), could significantly increase the risk of unsafe food entering U.S. commerce without FDA review.

Present at the hearing was Lisa Shames, director of GAO’s investigative report. At the urging of several Congressmen, including Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI), ranking member Michael Burgess (R-TX) and John Dingell (D-MI), Shames offered several recommendations. First, she said, FDA needs authority from Congress to assess civil penalties on firms and persons who violate FDA’s food safety laws.  In addition, she said, the FDA Commissioner should reach out to states and other agencies, such as the CMB, to find opportunities for additional collaboration through contracts, cooperative agreements, and informal partnerships. The power of FDA to issue mandatory recalls, she said, is also crucial.  

“All of these measures are contained within the Food Safety bill passed by the House in July,” she told the panel of Congressmen, saying later that “its passage would go a long way towards ensuring food safety.”

The second report (pdf), completed in April 2010 by the Office of the Inspector General, was equally adamant about the need to expand FDA’s oversight powers, but emphasized domestic facilities instead of importers.

“More than half of food facilities regulated by FDA went 5 years or more without inspections,” testified Jodi Nudelman, Regional Inspector General for Evaluations and Inspections, at the hearing. “And while the number of food facilities has increased over the last 5 years, FDA inspection has gone down.”

Nudelman, too, indicated the importance of extending mandatory recall power to the FDA. She also stressed the importance of not only inspecting food facilities, but following inspections with regular check-ups to guarantee corrections are made.

Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for the newly created Office of Foods, also testified at the hearing and reiterated the importance of passing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

“More inspections would help, but we also need to build more accountability throughout the supply chain,” he said. “This bill would ensure that.”

“We need the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act,” he concluded.