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New report shows gaps in FDA’s food import oversight

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 07-May-2010

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs more authority to oversee imported foods, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said in a new report.

There are about 189,000 registered foreign sites where food is made for sale in the United States, according to the report. Of those, the FDA inspected just 153 in 2008. Last year, it estimated that it would inspect 200 sites, and 600 in 2010. Meanwhile, the amount of food imported into the United States is increasing, and now accounts for 15 percent of the total food supply, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

“GAO identified certain statutory authorities that could help FDA in its oversight of food safety,” the report said. “Specifically, GAO previously reported that FDA currently lacks mandatory recall authority for companies that do not voluntarily recall food products identified as unsafe. Limitations in FDA’s food recall authorities heighten the risk that unsafe food will remain in the food supply.”

The FDA has opened offices in India, China and Costa Rica, the report said, and plans to open offices in Mexico and Chile, but the agency currently examines less than one percent of imported food.

The findings of the GAO report were presented at a House Committee hearing on Thursday, along with the findings of a previous study released in September last year in which the GAO said the FDA and US Department of Agriculture should work together to close gaps in the food safety network.

Food safety legislation – the Food Safety Modernization Act – that would give the FDA more resources and authority to deal with the safety of imported food, including the power to order recalls, is currently awaiting a full hearing by the Senate after passing unanimously through Committee in November. A companion bill passed the House in July.

According to figures from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 300,000 people in the United States are hospitalized every year due to foodborne illness, and about 5,000 die.

The new GAO report can be found online here .

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