business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that “Congressional investigators are expected to tell a House subcommittee today that the Food and Drug Administration's ability to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply is ‘minimal’ and agency plans to overhaul its inspection regime could make a bad situation worse.”

According to the paper, the investigation found that “a shrinking inspection staff examines less than 1% of all imported food. A typical inspector in the FDA's San Francisco office examines nearly 1,000 food entries a day -- roughly one every 30 seconds, the committee report found. The agency, it says, allows importers to take possession of their high-risk goods and arrange for testing by a private laboratory. Before melamine-contaminated pet food killed and sickened thousands of pets, the FDA had never inspected those ingredients from China.

“The FDA is trying to reorganize its field operations, but the report says some of its measure may backfire. Only a small percentage of its senior scientists are willing to be transferred if the agency closes seven of 13 laboratories. And in boxes of documents delivered to congressional investigators to explain the reasoning behind the closures, the agency didn't appear to have conducted any cost analysis.”
KC's View:
Ironically, the investigators are scheduled to testify as new headlines concerning the FDA hit the street – charging that the agency is spending more than $8 million in retention bonuses to keep many of its employees from defecting to the private sector. The stories I’ve read suggest that this is triple what the agency paid out in 2002 and more than is paid out by any other federal agency.

The system is broken, and somebody has to figure out how to fix it. I still think that what Tim Hammonds of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) proposed more than a half-dozen years ago makes sense – a single food safety agency that brings all these various disciplines sunder one roof. It will almost certainly require a major rethinking of the system, but it strikes me as the only way to go at this point.

Unfortunately, I suspect that the food safety issue will become more of a political football. And that usually isn’t helpful for anyone.