FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- The Food and Drug Administration's efforts to combat food-borne illness are hampered by staffing shortages, infrequent inspections and lax enforcement at fresh produce processing plants, according to congressional investigators.
The Government Accountability Office report also said only 1 percent of produce imported into the U.S. is inspected, and the practice of mixing produce from several sources makes tracing contamination challenging.
The draft findings released Friday outraged Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who along with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., called for the investigation after the 2006 E.coli contamination in bagged spinach killed three people, sickened 200 others and cost the leafy greens industry $86 million.
"This report paints a frightening picture of the FDA's fresh produce safety efforts," Boxer said. It "should serve as a wake up call to do more to protect the nation's food supply."
An assistant FDA commissioner said in a written statement Friday at least two of the GAO's recommendations, including giving the agency enhanced access to food records during emergencies, are included in the agency's 10-month-old Food Protection Plan. The strategy to protect food from intentional and unintentional contamination also involves more closely working with states' departments of food and agriculture.
"FDA will soon be awarding grants to states to further food and feed safety," said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for foods, adding that it is "one of the many steps we are taking to transform food protection."
The GAO report said inspections at produce-processing facilities are rare, and when problems are discovered, the FDA relies on the industry to correct them without oversight or follow up.
Between 2000 and 2007, the FDA detected food safety problems at more than 40 percent of the 2,002 plants inspected, yet half of those plants were inspected only once. The plants with food safety problems received only warning letters from the FDA, and even those ended in 2005.
"The agency seized no fresh produce, sought no injunctions and prosecuted no firms," investigators said.
The GAO said some of the FDA's problems can be attributed, in part, to funding.
As the amount of fresh produce imported into the U.S. has grown, the report said, the FDA's inflation-adjusted budget has remained stable, which has forced the agency to absorb cost-of-living increases for staff members. Cost-saving measures, such as early retirements and a decision not to fill some positions, resulted in reductions in food safety staffing by 17 percent, including 800 scientists, inspectors and others.
The loss of key scientists means food safety guidelines have not been updated, the GAO said. Despite identifying produce safety as a priority in 1997, the FDA still has no program devoted to fresh produce, and the industry is relying on its own rules for product safety.
The lack of specific knowledge, the report says, has prevented the FDA from developing "robust, science-based regulations and risk assessments that quantify the relative risks of consuming different types of produce."
The 59-page report, drafted as salmonella sickened 1,300 people in 43 states over the summer, cited previously unpublished FDA figures showing that 14 people died and 10,253 were sickened in 96 outbreaks associated with fresh produce from 1996 through 2006.
The report said the FDA delayed implementing safety measures for the fast-growing bagged produce market because of its focus on counterterrorisim and investigations into the outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. The result, the report said, will be a six-year delay in fresh-cut produce guidelines.
The FDA has focused its testing efforts on pesticide residue, rather than microbial contamination such as E. coli. In 2007, 82 percent of all produce samples underwent pesticide testing, while 18 percent were tested for microbial contamination.
The agency is responsible for ensuring the safety of a number of consumer products, including all food transported for sale across state lines, except meat, poultry and processed eggs. But the report found that only 3 percent of the FDA's food safety budget goes to fresh produce protection efforts.
When Americans loose confidence in their food supply, the GAO warned, the industry suffers economically. The problem is especially critical as Americans are encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables to combat cancer, obesity and heart disease.
The GAO recommends that the FDA commissioner update its 1998 so-called "good agricultural practices" and its 1986 "good manufacturing practices" for food and ask Congress for authority to set controls over high-risk items. It also suggests that the FDA seek broader authority to bypass companies and directly issue recalls, as the agency can with infant formula.
The cut produce industry is funding studies into potential causes of contamination, especially in leafy greens. New FDA studies on potential wildlife transmission of E. coli to leafy greens are still two years from completion.