Consumer groups continue to call for faster and more efficient work from FDA on a variety of topics including heavy metals in baby food and the recent outbreak of cronobacter from infant formula.

The advocacy groups include Consumer Reports, STOP Foodborne illness, the Environmental Working Group, and Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

During a Zoom session July 13 leaders from the groups discussed the need for congressional action to separate the food portion of the Food and Drug Administration into a separate agency under the Depart of Health and Human Services. The agency would be solely devoted to the food side of the FDA, which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food supply.

Representatives from the advocacy groups used heavy metals in baby food as one example of how the FDA has been impaired from taking quick action to remedy problems. The FDA set a deadline for itself of April this year for setting standards for limits on heavy metals such as lead and arsenic in baby food but is yet to publish those standards, according to Jane Houlihan of Health Babies Bright Futures.

The FDA has said that internal review of the standards is holding up the publication of the standards and there is a need for more funding and personnel to handle such matters.

While Brian Ronholm, Director of Food Policy for Consumer Reports, said the agency is underfunded in some ways, he said it does have a good core group in the food arm and a lack of leadership is the main problem on the food side of the FDA.

All four panelists agreed on that point, including Mitzi Baum of STOP Foodborne Illness and Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group.

Baum used the recent outbreak of cronobacter infections and death as an example of how the FDA does not have a single senior person who should receive all information on situations to determine action. She said there were red flags such asa reports of sick infants and a whistleblower report that should have spurred quicker action.

“The agency conducted business as usual,” Baum said, repeating that no one official received all of the available information, which impeded timely action.

Ronholm and Faber cited FDA failures to implement required aspects of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 as a major contributor to FDA’s failures to manage food safety situations.

All four panelists said there were failures on the part of industry and the FDA in terms of acting to keep the nation’s food safe, especially when it comes to baby food. In terms of lead levels, for example, the FDA has only set new limits for lemon and apple juice.

The FDA’s program “Closer fo Zero” for heavy metals in baby food has been a dismal failure, Houlihan said. The organization’s testing has showed 95 percent of foods tested show heavy metals in baby foods — and it is up to manufacturers to test, not the government.

“The bottom line is that FDA drags its feet about the dangers to infants,” Houlihan said. “There is a lack of leadership because there is a good core team at the agency.”

The entire panel lauded action by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen Dick Durbin with the introduction of the Food Safety Administration Act, which is legislation that would establish the Food Safety Administration, a single food safety agency responsible for keeping the food in America safe for market. It would not involve the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service so it would be easier to set up.

Ronholm, Faber and Scott specifically said the act is an example of a growing movement in Congress to address problems within the FDA and to pull the food arm out into a separate agency away from the drug activities of the FDA.

Baum said the FDA Commissioner Robert Califf’s recent comments about the situation shows it is time to act. He used the ongoing Salmonella outbreak and recall of Jif peanut as an example of how the agency can respond quickly under certain circumstances.

Joining DeLauro and Durbin as original cosponsors of the Food Safety Administration Act are Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and U.S. Reps Nannette Diaz Barragán (CA-44), Jimmy Panetta (CA-20), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12).

The legislation is endorsed by Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, Defend Our Health, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, STOP Foodborne Illness, and Center for Environmental Health.