WASHINGTON - The Food and Drug Administration needs an overhaul, beefed-up enforcement authority, and a new focus on spotting threats to the nation's food supply before serious outbreaks occur, a report released Tuesday says.
The report, by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, says the agency is hamstrung by limited resources and gaps in research-gathering and information-sharing, which all make it difficult for the FDA to thwart the spread of deadly foodborne illnesses.
To maximize agency efforts, the report says, the FDA should focus most of its efforts on areas of the food chain that pose the greatest risk of contamination. This "risk-based" approach would help catch potential problems in the production, distribution, handling, and storage of foods before they start turning up in hospitals.
The FDA monitors the safety of about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.
It has faced withering criticism over the years for being unable to handle its responsibility to monitor and inspect more than 150,000 food facilities, more than a million restaurants, more than two million farms, and millions of tons of imported foods.
Reported outbreaks of foodborne illness have increased in connection with domestic and foreign produce. Roughly 76 million people become sick each year in the United States after eating contaminated food, 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die. In 69 percent of the outbreaks that are investigated, no source of contamination is found, according to the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, an education and advocacy group.
The FDA lacks the scientific data and analytical expertise to identify the most problematic areas and the most effective preventative approaches. For instance, while scientists know that cattle carry E. coli that can make people ill, they aren't sure how the bacteria contaminate fresh produce or how far cattle should be kept from growing areas to safeguard crops.
The report recommends establishing a centralized food-safety information center that would collect and analyze research, inspection, and testing data from state and federal agencies.
The center also would recommend corrective actions, said Robert Wallace, a public health professor at the University of Iowa who chaired the committee that authored the report.