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Boxer and Kennedy Release GAO Report Detailing Insufficient Efforts by FDA to Protect Fresh Produce Safety

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Boxer and Kennedy Release GAO Report Detailing Insufficient Efforts by FDA to Protect Fresh Produce Safety

U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) today released a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluding that the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) lax efforts on fresh produce safety failed to prevent - and may have contributed to - recent outbreaks of food-borne illness.

Senator Boxer said, "This report paints a frightening picture of the FDA's fresh produce safety efforts - insufficient resources and staff, infrequent inspections and a failure to punish known violators. It also offers further proof that the Bush administration's disdain for government oversight and regulation has had disastrous consequences in terms of food safety and public health, let alone the financial markets. This report should serve as a wake up call to do more to protect the nation's food supply. I strongly urge the next President to make the necessary administrative changes recommended in this report, and I am committed to working with my colleagues to make sure that Congress passes common-sense legislation to help the FDA achieve its mission of keeping our food safe and healthy to eat."

"Americans deserve to have confidence that the food their families eat is safe. Again and again, American consumers have been let down by lax oversight and inadequate laws. Senator Kennedy is committed to working with his colleagues in Congress to improve the safety of the nation's food supply, so that American families need no longer fear that the food they eat is contaminated. Today's report is an important guide to Congress and the new Administration as they take action next year to address this important priority," said Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner.

The report, which was requested by Boxer and Kennedy in November, 2006 after E. coli contaminated spinach sickened hundreds of consumers, found that the FDA has dedicated relatively few resources to fresh produce safety. The FDA has no formal program devoted exclusively to fresh produce, but based on available estimates, fresh produce safety only accounted for about three percent of FDA's total annual food safety spending and only about four percent of FDA's food safety staff time in 2006 and 2007. Food safety staffing levels declined 17 percent from their peak of 3,969 staff years in fiscal year 2003 to 3,281 in fiscal year 2007. FDA has lost 800 scientists, inspectors and other critical food safety staff since fiscal year 2004.

The report found that domestic produce inspections have occurred infrequently. The number of domestic fresh produce inspections rose from 327 in fiscal year 2000 to a peak of 699 in fiscal year 2005, and then declined to 478 inspections in fiscal year 2007. The FDA is often unable to meet its goal of re-inspecting firms with objectionable conditions within two to three years.

Furthermore, according to the report the FDA has taken little enforcement action when inspections turn up objectionable conditions in firms. In 2000, 66 warning letters were issued related to fresh produce, but none in fiscal years 2005 through 2007. During the same period, the agency seized no fresh produce, sought no injunctions and prosecuted no firms for fresh produce-related violations.

Meanwhile, fresh produce imports increased about 60 percent between 2002 and 2007, from about 940,000 lines in fiscal year 2002 to over 1.5 million lines in fiscal year 2007, of which only about 0.73 percent was inspected.

The report found that FDA continues to struggle with difficulties in fresh produce tracebacks, as was the case of the recent salmonella outbreak, and it remains uncommon for investigations to trace the product back to the field that was likely the source of contamination.

The report also offered a series of recommendations for the FDA:

-Develop a plan for identifying research priorities and facilitating research related to fresh produce.

-Identify approaches for obtaining testing and other information from industry members to supplement its research agenda.

-Update its good agricultural practices guidance for fresh produce to incorporate new knowledge about safe growing practices.

-Update its current good manufacturing practice regulations for food to incorporate new knowledge about the food industry and safe manufacturing, processing and holding practices.

-Seek authority from Congress for FDA to adopt preventive controls for high-risk foods.

-Seek authority for FDA to have enhanced access to firm records during food-related emergencies.

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