The U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs more staff, more money, more power and a stronger infrastructure if it is going to be more effective, says a recent report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

This report, released yesterday, was requested by Congress due to growing concerns over the organization’s efficiency.  Approximately 76 million food-borne illnesses occur each year in the U. S., causing more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the Institute. High-profile recalls on spinach, packaged foods, lettuce, deli meats and cheeses and, most notably, children’s medicines have taken place during the past nine months.

The federally-funded Institute found that the primary problem with the administration is that it does not have enough power to protect the public from food-borne illnesses. Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the FDA cannot mandate a recall, it can only persuade companies into voluntarily recalling problematic foods.

Additionally, the FDA, already responsible for policing more than 150,000 food facilities, 1 million restaurants and 2 million farms, can’t adequately inspect the growing American import market. For example, according to the report, while 75% of U.S. seafood comes from overseas, only 2% is inspected by FDA officials.

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While the Institute recommends an increase in funding and staffing levels to address these inadequacies, it says that primarily the FDA’s approach needs be restructured.  

"FDA uses some risk assessment and management tactics, but the agency's approach is too often reactive and lacks a systematic focus on prevention,” committee chair Robert Wallace of the University of Iowa said in a press release. “Our report's recommendations aim to help FDA achieve a comprehensive vision for proactively protecting against threats to the nation's food supply."
The report recommends that the FDA switch over to a proactive “risk-based approach to evaluate food safety” rather than handling problems as they arise on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, it suggested the FDA delegate facility inspections to state agencies in an effort to reduce the administration’s workload.

The government tried to pass a food reform bill July 2009. The legislation was approved by the House, but stalled in the Senate, where it was tabled in favor of health care and Wall Street reform. However, according to Reuters, the Senate is expected to revisit this bill sometime this month.

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