Once again, the Food and Drug Administration is overwhelmed by an outbreak of contaminated food. Eight people have died and 575 people in 43 states have been sickened by an outbreak of salmonella that federal officials trace to peanut butter products made by the Peanut Corp. of America. The federal agency responsible for protecting the nation's food supply looks as if it learned nothing from grappling with similar outbreaks of tainted spinach and peppers. The FDA lacks the authority and resources to do its job. President Obama cannot allow this dereliction to continue.
The FDA says the Peanut Corp. of America shipped tainted products even after tests confirmed the presence of salmonella. The company is now under criminal investigation. The peanut butter and paste is not sold directly to consumers, but in bulk to processors who use the ingredient to make hundreds of different products, from cookies and crackers to cereal and candy.
Given how widely the product is used, and that peanut butter is a staple in the diet of American children, one would expect the FDA to have moved quickly to contain the health threat. But the limited recalls announced by the company in mid-January came as much as a week after public health officials targeted the Blakely, Ga., plant. The FDA took 16 days to fully inspect the plant, and faulted it for exposing food to contamination. Still, the total recall the following day, Jan. 28, was voluntary. And as the New York Times reported last week, the FDA, under its current rules, needed the company's approval before announcing the recall. The agency can seize products or go to court, if necessary, but in protecting the food supply, it usually relies on the cooperation of the very foodmakers who are under suspicion.
The agency plays a mop-up role, not a policing one. One reason is a lack of money. In two reports last year, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, chronicled how food safety was starved under the Bush administration. The FDA's total spending on food safety dropped between 2003 and 2007. Staffing levels fell 17 percent over those four fiscal years; the level in 2007 was lower than in 2002.
Meanwhile, the agency failed to incorporate recommendations on how to maximize its efforts. The GAO warned for 10 years that the FDA needed to better focus its resources. Yet as of May, it had implemented only seven of the 34 recommendations the GAO had made for improving food safety. "A decade later," the GAO wrote in June, "the story remains the same."
What hasn't remained the same is the agency's workload. The number of domestic firms regulated by the FDA increased from about 51,000 in 2001 to more than 65,500 in 2007. Yet the number of firms inspected decreased during that same time, to 14,566 from 14,721. That alone tells the government it needs to focus its food safety efforts. The FDA has been working to do just that since November 2007, but, as the peanut butter outbreak shows, it needs a shot in the arm (and one across the bow) from the White House.