But for more than a generation, evidence has been mounting of the threats posed by foods regulated by the FDA, especially produce. About 10 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing that outbreaks traced to fresh produce had jumped in absolute numbers and as a proportion of all reported food-borne illness outbreaks between 1973 and 1997. A separate study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that seafood and produce were the top two categories linked to outbreaks between 1990 and 2003.
Last year, the CDC reported that fruits and nuts were linked to the most illnesses, followed by vegetables that grow on vines and stalks.
These developments in part reflect the changing eating habits of Americans, who have been consuming more raw vegetables and fruits since the 1970s, explained Robert Tauxe, a deputy director at the CDC. He said that vast changes in the way food is produced, processed and distributed have also played a significant role. Decades ago, most vegetables and fruits were grown and sold locally. Today, crops such as lettuce are grown in only a few places in the country. “So when things go wrong, the effects are widespread,” Tauxe said.
The surge in imports has also increased the chances of contamination in foods regulated by the FDA. About 80 percent of seafood, 50 percent of fresh fruits and 20 percent of fresh vegetables are imported.
Despite the mounting threats, the FDA and its contractors inspected only 6 percent of the 421,000 domestic and foreign facilities under its watch in 2010, according to the most recent figures. Inspections account for the full-time work of just 1,000 employees. But if a site is linked to an outbreak of illness, inspectors and FDA scientists descend on it, sometimes staying put for weeks.
Under the food-safety bill enacted last year, food companies must adopt plans to spot and prevent hazards. The law also mandates more frequent inspections. For instance, plants that produce or process high-risk foods, including foods connected to previous outbreaks, must be inspected by 2015 and every three years thereafter.
But the bill does not provide funding for new inspectors. President Obama has requested $863 million for FDA food-safety programs, about the same amount Congress granted in each of the past two years — and significantly less than the $1 billion a year spent by the USDA on food safety. Obama’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year would also impose fees on food companies that would generate $225 million to help the FDA carry out the new law. But Congress has rejected similar proposals in the past, and the industry is already pushing back on the current fee plan.