This is what happens after eight years of starving government, I guess: While much of the current debate about improving food safety has focused on f
April 18, 2009

This is what happens after eight years of starving government, I guess:

While much of the current debate about improving food safety has focused on federal agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the bulk of food safety work is performed by about 3,000 local and state agencies, which handle everything from inspections of restaurants, food processing plants and grocery stores to detecting outbreaks and removing unsafe products from stores.

But those agencies are struggling, and Congress must reengineer the national system, according to an analysis by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, based on consultations with health experts, consumer groups and food executives nationwide.

"Congress needs to take responsibility for telling the government what its job is," said Michael R. Taylor, an author of the study who teaches at George Washington and is a former top official at the FDA and USDA. The study urges Congress to invest at least $350 million over five years to bolster underfunded state and local agencies and ensure a basic level of food safety in each state.

The analysis describes a fractured collection of food safety professionals all trying to do the same thing -- prevent illness from contaminated food -- but their efforts are hampered by weak coordination, poor communication, varying abilities, inconsistent methods and a lack of federal leadership. The report urges Congress to create a single cohesive food safety network composed of local, state and federal agencies and accountable to the secretary of health and human services.

"We need one food safety system, not 50," said Joseph Corby, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials. "State and local agencies do 2.5 million inspections a year, analyze hundreds of thousands of food samples, and most of this work is not done in a coordinated fashion and not used by the federal agencies."

Communication between state and local officials and federal agencies is often disjointed, the study found. During a recall of a tainted product, for example, the FDA will often obtain from a food processor a distribution list that identifies retailers who received the product, but the agency does not routinely share that information with local or state officials, even though they are responsible for checking store shelves to make sure tainted products have been removed.

Meanwhile, states that interview people who have become sick from food to figure out which products may be suspect often do not share victims' identities with the CDC, citing privacy laws, even if that data would help federal officials better track an outbreak.

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