The Underfunded and Overworked FDA

Earlier this year, I read an article from The New York Times that discussed a lack of funding that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) desperately needed to enforce a certain food safety law. This seems to be a common theme in the government these days; agencies and government programs being underfunded. Yet maybe we should consider giving a little more funding to an agency that makes sure people don’t become deathly ill from the food and medicine that people consume daily.

The FDA is also in charge of regulating medical devices, radiation-emitting products, vaccines, cosmetics, tobacco products, and other health related industries. That’s a lot to put on one underfunded and overworked agency’s plate.

The FDA regulates food producing and manufacturing facilities through inspections and by enforcing food safety laws, but companies are hardly going to be in a rush to comply with regulations and laws when the FDA is too busy fundraising and recruiting to actually do its job. Currently, the FDA claims it has a funding gap of around $276 million for its Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA).

The FMSA calls for more inspections and more regulation of high-risk food manufacturing facilities yet, unfortunately, the FDA may not be available to carry out this law.

In 2012, over one-fourth of the FDA’s staff consisted of temporary employees with two to four year contracts. As those contracts expire this year and next year, the FDA will have to find the time and the money to recruit qualified individuals.

Without the funding to pay for inspections, which costs anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 per facility, and without enough qualified personnel to carry them out, the FDA’s ability to regulate the food manufacturing industry has suffered, especially inspections of foreign suppliers.

To put this in perspective, in 2013 the FDA inspected just 1,342 foreign food facilities. At the time, there were 285,977 registered foreign food manufacturing facilities that provided food to the U.S. In 2014, the FDA was supposed to carry out 4,800 inspections of foreign high-risk food manufacturing facilities based on the FSMA, yet the agency only completed 1,323. Close to 300,000 facilities, and we inspected less than 2,000.

The situation here at home isn’t much better; out of 172,969 domestic food manufacturing facilities only 24,462 were inspected in 2013. While this is an improvement over our percentages of foreign inspections, FDA inspections are still only scratching the surface of the food manufacturing industry.

Perhaps the most shocking information I came across in the 2013 Annual Report on Food Facilities was this: “FDA is attempting to inspect all […] high-risk facilities in 3 years […]” And just how does the FDA expect to achieve this at its current rate of inspections? It certainly won’t happen without some major increases in both money and manpower.

In the FDA’s Annual Report on Food Facilities, from 2011(when FMSA was enacted) to 2013, one reads this line, “Number of high-risk facilities scheduled for inspection but not inspected: FDA is unable to answer this question at this time.”

Really, why can’t they tell us? Or do they somehow not know? A government agency is saying it is unaware of either how many facilities it was supposed to inspect, or how many it did inspect. I find that hard to believe, since I’m guessing someone at the FDA is capable of doing basic math, and you know they had a list of facilities that needed to be inspected.

Here’s a formula for them: number of facilities scheduled for inspection at the beginning of the year minus the number of inspections actually carried out by the end of the year. It isn’t that difficult.

On the FDA’s website, there is a well-hidden FAQ section with the question “How often does FDA inspect food manufacturing facilities?” Answer: “FDA inspects food facilities routinely.” Routinely? Well, that’s a little vague, if you ask me. Also, there are no helpful links provided to investigate how the frequency is determined, or what laws exist, if any, mandating inspections every few years. Nope, just a vague, noncommittal answer from an organization that can only do so much with what it has been given.

While our country has a lot of issues and underfunded programs to sort through right now, we need to be able to count on the fact that our food is safe to eat. We are relying on corporations in the food manufacturing industry to follow the food safety laws without the threat of any real consequences if they don’t; not because the laws don’t exist, but because there isn’t enough money or manpower to catch the facilities breaking the laws, let alone enforce them.