Number 8 in our list of the top 17 food safety news stories of 2010 is the frequency–or infrequency–of food inspections in the United States.

The headlines said it all last April–“Except for Meat Most Food Does Not Get Inspected.”   Ordinarily it would not have been good news for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for inspecting the 80 percent of U.S. food that is not meat.


Coming last April, however, when the Senate was still months away from acting on the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act, it delivered the unwashed truth exactly when it was needed.

FDA got an assist from the Inspector General’s Office at the Department of Health and Human Services.  FDA not only agreed with the Inspector General’s findings, the agency pretty much agreed with its recommendations.

Among the major findings were:

  • On average, FDA inspects less than one quarter of the food facilities each year, and the number of facilities inspected has declined over time.  

  • Fifty-six percent of food facilities have gone five or more years without an FDA inspection.

  • The number of facilities that received official action indicated (OIA) classifications have declined over time.

  • FDA took regulatory action against 46 percent of the facilities with initial OAI classifications; for the remainder, FDA either lowered the classification or took no regulatory action.

  • For 36 percent of the facilities with OAI classifications in fiscal year (FY) 2007, FDA took no additional steps to ensure that the violations were corrected.

USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) assigns resident inspectors to all beef, pork, poultry and egg production facilities.  Inspectors are on the scene at those facilities during operations.  It takes about 6,500 inspectors to cover those USDA-inspected facilities.

By contrast, FDA in FY 2010 had no more than 2,505 inspectors to cover 51,229 food facilities that fall under its regulatory authority.   More than half of those facilities have not been inspected in more than five years.  “If FDA does not routinely inspect food facilities, it is unable to guarantee that these facilities are complying with applicable laws and regulations,” the IG said.

FDA has managed to obtain budget authority to hire and train 339 additional inspectors since FT 2009, but, by some estimates, will need a couple thousand more to do the job set out in S. 510, the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act.

As it is, the IG found that the number of food plants getting inspected by FDA’s Food Program field team is going down, and the number of facilities is going up.  The most food inspections in the five-year period covered by the IG report occurred during 2004 when 17,032 inspections were completed.

In the most recent year covered by the report, 2008, less than 15,000 facilities were inspected.  And the food industry is either cleaning up its act or inspectors are inflating the grades they are giving because the number of plants tagged for OIA has been cut in half.

The IG found that food makers coming to OIA attention typically fall into one or more of these categories: unsafe practices or insanitary conditions; repeat offender, and/or refuse to open records to inspection.  The IG also found enforcement action against just two percent.

The April IG report also made several recommendations, including for FDA to make more frequent inspections with emphasis on high-risk facilities.  The IG also made suggestions for improving on how OAI cases are handled, calling for FDA authority to impose civil penalties and access records during inspection.

The thrust of what the IG recommended is now covered in the food safety bill awaiting the President’s signature.