Ex-FDA official calls for more food plant inspections
Posted February 11, 2009 4:44 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT
Chapel Hill, N.C. — A former official with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says problems like the nationwide salmonella outbreak in peanut producs continue to occur because plants that produce and process food aren't inspected often enough.
Nine people have died and hundreds have become six in recent weeks after peanut butter from a Georgia plant operated by Peanut Corp. of America was found to be tainted with salmonella bacteria. The outbreak has resulted in one of the largest product recalls in history, with more than 1,800 items pulled from store shelves.
Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories Inc., told a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday that his company tested PCA's products and notified the Georgia plant that salmonella was found in some of its peanut stock as far back as 2006. Yet, an FDA inspection report noted the company sold the products anyway.
Federal investigators are investigating PCA for possible criminal violations, and company President Stewart Parnell refused to speak with the congressional committee on Wednesday.
"If we had a working system, PCA would probably never have happened," said William Hubbard, who served 14 years as the FDA's associate commissioner for policy and planning before retiring to Chapel Hill in 2005.
Hubbard said the number of FDA inspectors has dropped by 700 since 2003 because of funding constraints. Meanwhile, the number of plants that need to be checked has increased, he said.
The result is infrequent inspections that allow tainted food to enter the nation's food distribution network, he said, noting outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have tripled in the last 15 years.
"The average food firm in North Carolina may not see an FDA inspector within 10 to 15 years, which is just not adequate," Hubbard said. "Clearly, FDA is getting weaker and weaker as problems are getting bigger and bigger."
An FDA spokesman said the agency is able to do about 7,000 inspections a year, leaving state and local inspectors to conduct about 80 percent of checks at food plants nationwide. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services inspected nearly 8,000 food processing plants and grocery stores last year, a spokesman said.
"You need to shudder to think you have literally tens of thousands of food firms like the PCA out there – small firms making a wide variety of foods that no one's checking out. That's a real cause of concern," he said.
To ensure the federal safety net doesn't fail again, Hubbard said, the FDA needs more funding for more inspectors. Congress also needs to give the agency the power to order a mandatory recall, he said.
"If we're not giving FDA the resources to protect our food supply, then we, as a country, are failing," he said.