FDA lags USDA in accessible food safety data

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Salmonella in peanut butter. E. coli in cookie dough. Tainted Serrano peppers. Fetid Chinese seafood.

All these recent problems fell within the domain of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which shares food inspection responsibilities with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA inspects meat, poultry and some egg products while the FDA monitors everything else. Food-safety advocates say the USDA is more forthcoming about its inspection activities and are prodding the FDA to do better.

Almost two years ago, Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit against the FDA after it refused to release its work plans under a Freedom of Information Act request. “The Food and Drug Administration is chronically short on resources to address food safety, and we are being denied important information on how the agency has managed these resources in the face of ever-increasing food imports,” the group’s executive director said at the time.

Food & Water Watch settled the lawsuit with the Obama administration, said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist with the group. The FDA turned over its complete work plans from 2001 through 2004 and partially redacted plans from 2005 through 2008 — not enough, in Corbo’s view. All the information, he said, should be online: “We really don’t know what they’re doing, how frequently they’re visiting food processing facilities, and this would help.”

Also on Corbo’s wish list for the FDA website: Laboratory testing data on both domestic and imported foods, and summaries of facility inspections . These are now posted only after someone has made a Freedom of Information Act request, Corbo said. He cited the USDA’s page on Foreign Audit Reports as an example of what the FDA should be doing.

In an e-mail, FDA spokesman Tom Gasparoli wrote, “The FDA is very close to making recommendations on the data sets it thinks should be posted under the agency’s Transparency Initiative. The ones you ask about have not been ruled in or out at this point. Those recommendations are expected to be made public around early March, and there will be considerable opportunity for public comment.”

Gasparoli noted that the FDA’s parent, the Department of Health and Human Services, has already posted on www.data.gov the Electronic Animal Drug Product Listing Directory. This, he wrote, qualifies as a “high-value” data set and “the animal health industry can use the site to find out about actively marketed animal drug products and their submitted labeling.”

Said Corbo: “This is a step in the right direction for the animal drug industry, but consumers still need to know how the agency is protecting them.”

ABOUT THE DATA

What: Copies of food inspection work plans

Where: Food and Drug Administration, Washington, D.C.

Availability: Closed to public

Format: PDFs

Usability: N/A

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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