By Steven Reinberg
MONDAY, Dec. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Responding to criticism that it has done a poor job safeguarding the nation's food supply, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report Monday detailing its efforts to protect consumers.
Among the most important changes in 2008 was the agency's initiative to build better relationships with state and local health departments to protect the food supply, said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the FDA.
"Another big success is the strategic change we are making with regard to imports. What you could call the 'globalization of FDA,' which is shifting our emphasis on inspection on the port of entry only to more of a product-lifecycle approach," Acheson said. "We are focused on building the systems to better understand what's going on in foreign manufacturing."
U.S. consumers have been bombarded during the past two years with a series of worrisome headlines, ranging from milk products, blood-thinning medication and pet foods contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine imported from China; to jalapeno peppers from Mexico bearing the salmonella bacteria; to U.S.-produced spinach poisoned with the E. coli bacteria.
The new report updates progress made since the FDA unveiled its Food Protection Plan in 2007. Titled Food Protection Plan: One-Year Progress Summary, the document cites improvements in three areas: prevention of outbreaks of food-borne disease; intervention; and response to outbreaks. Some of the accomplishments include:
- The agency said it's in the process of opening five offices around the world, to be staffed with its own inspectors, in China, India, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.
- The FDA participated in meetings in China to discuss food-safety issues in both countries and to share suggestions on ways to address global food safety.
- It is hiring an "international notification coordinator" to serve as a liaison between the FDA and its foreign counterparts.
- It has approved the irradiation of iceberg lettuce and spinach to control toxins such as E. coli.
- It has developed tests to detect contaminants such as melamine and cyanuric acid.
On the intervention front, the FDA said it has inspected 5,930 high-risk food establishments in the past year; has developed a rapid detection test for E. coli and salmonella in food that's now being used in poultry-processing plants; and has expanded its database of "adverse drug events" to include "adverse feed events," to respond faster to outbreaks of feed-borne disease in animals, among other efforts.
As for its "response" efforts, the FDA said it's working with industry and the public to find better ways of tracing fresh produce in the food-supply chain; has hired two "emergency/complaint-response coordinators" to improve the agency's response to emergencies involving animal feed, including pet food; and has reached agreements with six states to create a "rapid response team" for food and food-borne illnesses.
In response to the threat of melamine-contaminated infant formula and milk products from China, the FDA said it has canvassed more than 2,100 stores stocking Asian products to remove them from store shelves.
Some critics think the FDA's food-safety efforts still don't go far enough.
"We were not a huge fan of some of the goals they laid out, so we are not a huge fan of the progress they've made," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch.
Lovera thinks the FDA needs to have more independent authority to enforce food safety.
"They are too reliant on the industry," Lovera said. "They are really collaborating with the industry -- there is really not new regulation. There is not an overall commitment to enforcement domestically or abroad. This whole plan they are reporting progress on, we think is a step in the wrong direction."
Lovera said many of the food-safety problems that occurred this year highlighted the FDA's shortcomings. For example, late last week, the agency set acceptable levels of melamine in domestic infant formula -- one month after stating that no levels were acceptable.