Last week, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Energy and Commerce Committee, held a hearing to discuss the recent performance of FDA in ensuring food safety.
Witnesses included Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods, Food and Drug Administration; Steven M. Solomon, Assistant Commissioner for Compliance Policy, Office of Regulatory Affairs, Food and Drug Administration; Lisa Shames, Director, Agriculture and Food Safety, Government Accountability Office; Jodi Nudelman, Regional Inspector General for Evaluation and Inspections, Region II, Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.
The hearing examined two reports relating to the Food and Drug Administration’s management of international food imports and inspections of domestic food facilities. In September 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the safety of imported food, entitled Food Safety: Agencies Need to Address Gaps in Enforcement and Collaboration to Enhance Safety of Imported Food. In the report, GAO examined FDA’s difficulties in coordinating information-sharing and enforcement efforts with Customs and Border Protection. CBP provides information on imported food shipments to FDA, but GAO found that the two agencies’ failure to assign unique identification numbers to import firms limited FDA’s ability to tackle problems with high-risk food shipments. GAO also opined that FDA does not have sufficient authority to ensure importer compliance with existing requirements. After imported food enters the United States, it remains in the possession of the importing firm until the FDA approves its release. The importer posts a monetary bond with CBP that is intended to discourage the shipment’s unauthorized release prior to FDA approval. However, the report found that because the value of the bond penalty is low, GAO previously concluded that the system may not provide an effective deterrent.
FDA testimony last week acknowledged that GAO has raised some important issues in its report on imported food. The Agency apparently agrees with many of the GAO recommendations and will incorporate them, as appropriate, into both short-term and long-term initiatives to help ensure the safety of imported foods. FDA also admitted it has encountered certain problems with rolling out PREDICT (the Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting system to improve import screening and targeting nationwide), due to difficulties with incorporating it into the Agency’s information technology infrastructure, which itself is in the process of undergoing major upgrades.
FDA officials also testified that enacting new food safety legislation is critical to strengthening FDA’s oversight of imported foods. H.R. 2749 would, among other things, provide valuable new tools, said the agency, for ensuring that importers reliably verify that the foods they import are produced in compliance with the same prevention-oriented standards that would be applicable to foods produced in the United States. For our food safety system to be effective, prevention must begin at the point of production, not at the port of entry, according the FDA.
The second report was from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and was entitled FDA Inspections of Domestic Food Facilities; it identified a number of challenges confronting FDA in safeguarding domestically produced food. OIG found that, on average, FDA inspects only 24% of domestic food facilities annually; in addition, the number of inspections declined from 2004 to 2008. The report also found that over the past five years, FDA has not inspected 56% of the food facilities subject to its authority. OIG found that when violations were identified, FDA did not always take swift and effective action to ensure that these violations were remedied. Additionally, OIG claimed that some facilities that had violations significant enough to warrant regulatory action refused to grant FDA inspectors access to their official records.
FDA claims the agency has already addressed many of the issues and recommendations noted in the report, and considerable progress is being made on others. FDA agrees with OIG’s assessment of the gaps in the Agency’s inspection authority. FDA is seeking more effective enforcement tools in accordance with OIG’s legislative recommendations. H.R. 2749 seeks to provide enhancements to FDA’s ability to trace the origin and distribution of tainted food. FDA would issue regulations that require food producers, manufacturers, processors, transporters, or holders to maintain a pedigree of the origin and previous distribution history of the food and to link that history with the subsequent distribution history of the food.