The FDA’s Food Failure

POLITICO:

By the time FDA officials figured out it was spinach that was making people sick in 10 states – sending three people into kidney failure – it was too late. It was mid-November 2021 and the packaged salad’s short shelf life had passed. There was no recall. By the time FDA officials got inspectors on the ground, spinach season was over. The fields and the production facilities were empty, which made it impossible to pinpoint the source of contamination.

Whatever caused the outbreak was likely never fixed.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s been more than 11 years since Congress passed a sweeping food safety law designed to prevent this type of health risk. In that time, FDA has failed to put in place safety standards for the water used to grow fresh produce, as mandated by that law, despite knowing that water is one of the main ways fresh fruits and vegetables become contaminated with deadly pathogens. Congress has ramped up FDA funding over the past decade, but deadly outbreaks keep happening and it often takes the agency too long to respond.

Many consumers would be surprised to learn this anemic, slow response is typical for an agency that oversees nearly 80 percent of the American food supply, but slow is what insiders in Washington have come to expect from FDA, regardless of administration. A monthslong POLITICO investigation found that regulating food is simply not a high priority at the agency, where drugs and other medical products dominate, both in budget and bandwidth – a dynamic that’s only been exacerbated during the pandemic. Over the years, the food side of FDA has been so ignored and grown so dysfunctional that even former FDA commissioners readily acknowledged problems in interviews.

“The food program is on the back burner. To me, that’s problem No. 1,” said Stephen Ostroff, who twice served as acting commissioner of FDA, and held several other senior roles at the agency, most recently as top food official. When POLITICO called Ostroff for this story, he was so eager to discuss the agency’s problems, he prepared a laundry list of his concerns.

“There are a lot of things that languish,” Ostroff said. “There’s nobody really pushing very hard to get them done in the same way that you’re pushing very hard to get the Covid vaccines out there and authorized. We don’t have that imperative and that pressure to actually make things happen on the food side of the Food and Drug Administration.”

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