By David Michaels

This morning’s AP wire brings news of yet another E. Coli outbreak, this one resulting in 14 hospitalizations (so far) among customers of a “Taco John’s” restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

This follows the Taco Bell E. Coli outbreak, with more than 60 cases in 5 states.

Which followed the spinach E. Coli outbreak that sickened 200 people.

The FDA may be doing a terrific job investigating each of these outbreaks, but has failed in its primary mission: to prevent the outbreaks in the first place. The FDA is suffering from the effects of being part of a government that no longer takes its public health responsibilities seriously.
Andrew Martin in today’s New York Times reports that:

Overall, the F.D.A.’s food safety budget has been declining for decades, with money being shifted into the agency’s oversight of drug and medical devices, said William K. Hubbard, a former F.D.A. associate commissioner. He said the portion of the budget devoted to food safety has fallen to about 25 percent from 50 percent in the early 1970s.

Operating funds for the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the division at the heart of its food safety operations, have decreased to an estimated $25 million next year from $48 million in 2003, and the number of full-time positions has fallen to 817 from 950, according to F.D.A. records.

Food inspectors are a separate part of the F.D.A. budget that was not immediately available; however, the number of inspectors has declined to 1,962 from about 2,200 in 2003, F.D.A. documents show.

Food safety isn’t the only FDA regulatory activity that has been cut. In June, Congressman Henry Waxman issued a report “Prescription for Harm: The Decline in FDA Enforcement Activity” about the drmamtic and dangerous reductions in regulatory compliance activities on the drug side of the FDA. He found, for example, that the number of warning letters sent by the FDA to drug companies, medical device manufacturers and others declined from 1,154 in 2000 to 535 in 2005, a 54% decrease.

The E. coli outbreaks are likely to continue, since, according to Annys Shin of the Washington Post:

The patchwork of federal and state regulations that is supposed to ensure food safety has become less effective as the nation’s produce supply has grown increasingly industrial. Three months after the spinach scare, there is no agreement on what should be done to reduce health risks from the nation’s fruits and vegetables even as each episode of illness has heightened a sense of urgency.

What will happen next? Probably more outbreaks. More deaths. The Democratic Congress will conduct oversight.

Eventually, the food industry will shelve (at least temporarily) give up their anti-regulatory ferver, and ask the FDA to issue stronger regulations. Why? Voluntary programs won’t convince consumers to buy more spinach, or continue to visit the fast food restaurants where the outbreaks are occurring.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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