The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lacks a comprehensive vision for food safety and should change its approach to protect the food supply, says a new report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

The 500-page report, requested by Congress to identify ways to improve the federal food safety system, concluded that the agency–charged with regulating 80 percent of the food supply–is not efficiently using limited resources to target the riskiest parts of the food chain, too often reacting to outbreaks instead of working to prevent them in the first place.

“As recent illnesses traced to produce underscore, foodborne diseases cause significant suffering, so it’s imperative that our food safety system functions effectively at all levels,” said Robert Wallace, a professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health and chair of the committee that produced the report. “FDA uses some risk assessment and management tactics, but the agency’s approach is too often reactive and lacks a systematic focus on prevention.  Our report’s recommendations aim to help FDA achieve a comprehensive vision for proactively protecting against threats to the nation’s food supply.”

Both the findings and recommendations in the report were no surprise to food safety experts, many of whom have been advocating for a risk-based, reorganized, and more preventative federal food safety system for decades.

Unsurprisingly, the release of the report renewed calls–from the food industry, members of Congress, and food safety advocates–to pass food safety legislation pending in the Senate.

“Despite countless instances of foodborne illness outbreaks, hundreds of sickened Americans and food recalls that put financial strain on companies and consumers, this latest [Institute of Medicine] report shows that gaps still exist in our nation’s food safety system,” said Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the committee that approved the Senate legislation in November. “Modernizing our outdated food safety system–a system established over 100 years ago–is a matter of public safety and well being.”

“The gaps in oversight that [the Institute of Medicine] has identified reinforce the need for the Senate to move on this legislation as soon as possible,” said Harkin. “And because this issue cannot wait, we hope to get the bill to the Senate Floor this month.”

“This report reaffirms what we all know, and what I have been saying for years: our food safety system is not working,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a longtime advocate for a stronger food regulatory system.

“Given the current inadequate inspection schedule for processing facilities, typically consisting of one visit every few years, and the sheer number of food recalls, the situation is unacceptable,” said DeLauro in a statement yesterday. “It is imperative that the Senate act during this work period on the food safety legislation already passed by the House of Representatives to strengthen the FDA’s ability to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks.”

Similar to a bill that passed the House last July with bipartisan support, the Senate bill would mandate a majority of the reports recommendations, including facility registration, greater access to records, mandatory preventative controls, enforceable performance standards, and mandatory recall authority.

Though most experts agreed with most of the findings and recommendations in the report, a few expressed disagreement with the recommendation that more responsibility and enforcement should be shifted to the states.

“The report released today says the FDA needs to become more efficient and better target its limited resources to better prevent foodborne illness outbreaks,” said Consumer Federation of America in a statement yesterday. “It suggests doing that, in part, by turning inspection of food processing facilities over to state and local governments, which have far fewer resources than the FDA. We do not think that creating a new unfunded mandate on state governments is advisable or realistic.”

The sentiment was echoed by experts at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who called the recommendation “an experiment destined to increase the number of food safety failures we have already experienced.”

Advocacy groups maintain that creating a more efficient and stronger federal inspection force and centralizing food safety activities into one agency (which is recommended by the report) are keys to improving the system.