Federal inspectors are conducting fewer reviews of food manufacturing plants, with many facilities going more than five years without being checked, a government investigator said Wednesday.
The drop in inspections could make an outbreak of foodborne disease more likely, putting the public at risk, according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general.
A shrinking workforce at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for much of the drop in the number of facilities inspected, including those deemed high risk by the agency, the report said.
An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"This is unacceptable in our modern society and an important reminder that we must provide FDA with the needed tools," said Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which unanimously passed a food safety bill in November.
The measure awaits full approval from the Senate, which could take place soon after lawmakers return next week. A food safety bill passed in the House in July.
Since 2006, the U.S. food supply has been battered by high-profile outbreaks involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts and spinach. Foodborne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year, according to a recent study.
Many violations not addressed
The inspector general report found food safety violations are not always properly addressed by FDA, which oversees 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.
FDA can assign a facility with the most serious food safety or regulatory infractions an official action indicated (OAI) classification, which warrants agency action to ensure the violation is fixed. But FDA took no regulatory action against 25 percent of facilities it assigned an OAI classification in fiscal 2007, the report said.
Additionally, 36 percent of facilities with an OAI classification did not receive any follow up from FDA to ensure the violations were corrected.
FDA said it was working on addressing these issues with plans to revise its guidance on OAI classifications.
With more money appropriated for the agency in the president's budget, the FDA said it would be able to make inspections more frequently.