GAO Calls Out FDA on Poor Oversight of Fresh Produce



The U.S. Government Accountability Office believes the Food and Drug Administration needs to do much more to avoid repeats of mass foodborne illness like we saw earlier this year. A salmonella outbreak linked to tainted peppers and tomatoes that sickened over 1,400 people was this country’s largest outbreak in over ten years.

The GAO report focuses on fresh produce for several reasons. First and foremost, Americans are consuming fresh fruits and vegetables in increasing numbers as part of a healthy diet. The USDA claims the average American consumed 13 pounds more of fresh fruit and 50 pounds more of fresh vegetables between 2003 and 2005 than from 1983 to 1985. Add to this the number of consumers interested in obtaining food with the “Organic” label, as well as the rise in stores like Whole Foods that push healthy living. However, the FDA has been slow to update research and regulatory practices. The last agricultural update was in 1998, and the last update to fresh-cut produce was in 1986.

One problem the FDA has encountered, which the GAO notes, is the lack of funding and staffing shortfalls. Although the FDA has taken steps to hire more scientists and inspectors, they have lost groups critical to food safety every year for the last four years – some 800 annually. Furthermore, the FDA only spends three percent of its food safety budget each year on the realm of fresh produce. Less than one percent of all produce imported into the U.S. is inspected even though imports increase each year.

In addition to the salmonella outbreak, the bagged spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006, and the recent tainted milk products in China have come to light. This has caused concern not only among those at the GAO, but average consumers as well. Besides sickening thousands of people, the produce industry is bleeding millions of dollars.

Foodborne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli not only sicken, but have been known to kill. The groups most likely to become ill are the young, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems. If you feel you may have been sickened by tainted produce, contact an experienced defective product attorney in your area.