The FDA earns thoroughly deserved criticism for allowing pharmaceutical companies to sell dangerous and deadly drugs that cause injuries and deaths, but the F in FDA is Food, and a major part of the FDA‘s job description is to assure Americans that our food supply is safe. However, as recent incidents of food poisoning show, the FDA does a fatally poor job of protecting Americans from foodborne illnesses, personal injuries and deaths.

The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) found that contaminated food products are so common that Americans suffer 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5000 deaths every year.That frightening number means that one of every four Americans will suffer a food-related illness in the next 12 months. Some of those cases result from careless handling and preparation of food, but many come directly from pathogens contained in food products that consumers purchase with the expectation that they’re safe.

One major part of the food safety problem is a division of powers and an imbalance in funding between agencies. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the FDA is one of 15 different agencies that are supposed to enforce at least 30 different laws related to food safety.

FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the agencies with primary responsibility for food safety. The FDA oversees 80% of our food supply, while meat, poultry, and eggs come under under the jurisdiction of the USDA‘s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which inspects meat processing plants daily. But even those frequent inspections are not a guarantee that the meat and poultry in the supermarket are always free from harmful bacteria.

The FDA says that it inspects certain high-risk facilities under its jurisdiction annually, but that still means that those plants receive far fewer inspections than meat plants, and annual inspections allow problems to go undetected and uncorrected for a long time between inspections. And despite the FDA‘s larger responsibility, the USDA‘s food safety expenditures for 2007 were almost twice as large as the FDA‘s – $892 million to $457 million.

While the FDA has responsibility for the largest part of the food supply, the percentage of its funding devoted to food safety has actually been shrinking for decades. In the 1970s, the FDA‘s Food Safety Program accounted for almost half of the agency’s budget, but today that program receives only about 25% of the agency’s funding, and federal food inspections have dropped by 81% since 1972.

The United States imports a huge amount of food from Mexico, and for Mexican growers to gain access to the American market, the approval process is so simple that it’s actually no process at all. All that’s required is to register online. Mexican companies can grow and package produce in the most unsanitary conditions with almost no concern about inspections.

That lack of regulation is just one reason why many public interest groups, individual citizens, legislators and government agencies have been urging Congress to improve the FDA for years, and the agency’s overall performance has been so bad that it actually has its own watchdog group dedicated to improving it.

Another organization, the Center for Science In The Public Interest, has expended the resources to produce a comprehensive plan for improving food safety.

And Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has recognized the FDA‘s shortcomings and is proposing major changes to the agency.

Despite the FDA‘s failures, the Bush administration did nothing to improve food safety, and President Obama will serve the American people well by increasing the FDA‘s funding and by appointing a respected new commissioner. American consumers deserve an assurance of safety with every meal. The FDA‘s failure to guarantee food safety brings unnecessary danger to the dining table, and major reforms are absolutely necessary.

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Richard Alexander