FDA Needs Help Inspecting Food Imports: Regional Director

As food safety legislation continues to be considered in the Senate, the Food & Drug Administration finds itself lacking resources needed for inspections of imported foods and other products, said Dennis Baker, director of the FDA’s Southwest Region.

SAN ANTONIO — As food safety legislation continues to be considered in the Senate, the Food & Drug Administration finds itself lacking resources needed for inspections of imported foods and other products, said Dennis Baker, director of the FDA’s Southwest Region.

In a presentation here this week at U Connect 2010, Baker pointed out the dramatic increase in imports, from six million entries (such as a container ship) in 1993 to between 19 and 20 million this year. Food imports come from 222,000 foreign food manufacturers, including 45% of fresh fruit imports and 75% of seafood—“maybe more than that with oil in the Gulf,” he said.

“We could put 100,000 people on board and we couldn’t look at all these products,” he said. “We don’t have all the authority we need and the enforcement tools to carry out the work.”

Pending legislation would bolster the FDA’s resources and authority. Last July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, and the Senate is expected to take up the bill's companion legislation, the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said Baker. “We certainly have bipartisan congressional support to do something.”

In the meantime, the FDA is opening up more foreign offices, including three in China, and working on inspection improvements. The agency is also considering wider use of third-party certification bodies “so we can rely on third parties to do some of this work,” he said. The FDA also needs to improve its “antiquated” IT systems that don’t allow its own agencies to communicate electronically or enable the FDA’s systems to communicate with those at state regulators, Baker said.

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