WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. government has increasingly relied on food-safety inspections performed by states, where budgets for inspections in many cases have remained stagnant and where overburdened officials are trained less than their federal counterparts and perform skimpier reviews, an Associated Press investigation has found.
The thoroughness of inspections performed by states has emerged as a key issue in the investigation of the national salmonella outbreak traced to a peanut processing plant in Blakely, Ga. The outbreak, which has highlighted weaknesses in the nation's food-safety system, is blamed for 600 illnesses and at least eight deaths in 44 states.
The House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, which is to hold a hearing Wednesday on food safety, scheduled a meeting Tuesday to issue a subpoena for Peanut Corp. of America President Stewart Parnell, said a senior aide to a member of the panel. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because panel members were still being notified, said Parnell was otherwise refusing to appear at the hearing.
State investigators performed more than half the Food and Drug Administration's food inspections in 2007, according to an AP analysis of FDA data. That represents a dramatic rise from a decade ago, when FDA investigators performed three out of four of the federal government's inspections. The Agriculture Department is responsible for meat and dairy safety.
Increased inspection responsibilities have not been accompanied by big spending increases in many states responsible for the bulk of the nation's food production.
The FDA covers some costs for states to perform inspections. But in Pennsylvania and Ohio, for example, each state's own food safety spending increased only slightly since 2003, less than the rate of inflation; in California and Massachusetts, just barely more than inflation; and in New Jersey, spending has remained about the same. Those are among states with the largest numbers of food-processing plants.
"It clearly is a passing the buck kind of thing and somebody is dropping the buck along the way," said Cornell University food safety professor Joseph Hotchkiss.
A Georgia health inspector noted only two minor violations at the Peanut Corp. of America plant in October, and inspection reports indicate officials spent no more than a few hours inside the plant during visits there. But after the FDA became suspicious of the plant's role in the outbreak months later, it found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other sanitation problems. The federal agents spent days at the plant.
"To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Agriculture Committee. "Food safety in America has become a hit or miss gamble, and that is truly frightening. It's time to find the gaps in the system and remedy them."
The FDA never followed up on the Georgia inspections because the problems discovered by the state "were considered to be somewhat resolved," Michael Chappell, head of the FDA's enforcement division, said during a congressional hearing last week.
The FDA relied on Georgia to inspect the Peanut Corp. plant in Blakely between 2006 and 2008, just as it relies on other states. But Georgia failed to identify problems, even as the company's own internal testing repeatedly found salmonella in its products and Canada rejected a shipment of its peanuts because of metal contamination.
"Many of these state contract inspections are much briefer, much less intensive inspections than the FDA does," said former FDA deputy commissioner Michael Taylor, who supports contracting to the states.
Taylor said the FDA doesn't have enough money to perform its own inspections. But he acknowledges problems with state visits and has urged a dramatic overhaul of federal and state food safety.
The number of federal field food inspectors dropped by more than 400 between 2003 and 2007, according to the FDA's budget. But the number of businesses requiring oversight increased by 7,200 between 2003 and 2007, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
"What's happened is the agency can do fewer and fewer (inspections) itself, so if it's going to do anything it has to use the states," said Bill Hubbard, a former associate FDA commissioner who now lobbies for increases in FDA funding. "The states can do it much more cheaply, but the states may not do as it thoroughly."
Some states, such as New York and Florida, earn high praise among food safety experts for conducting professional inspections. And in some cases, state enforcement laws give state officials more authority than the FDA's inspectors have under federal laws.
Florida's food safety director, Dr. Marion Aller, said her inspectors are as good as the FDA's. But even though Florida recently raised fees it charges for inspections, she acknowledged the state's food safety budget "has not kept pace with the growth in the industry."
"We are not inspecting 100 percent of the firms at 100 percent of the desired times," she said.
In the wake of the Georgia case, food-safety inspections are facing new scrutiny from Congress. The FBI said Monday it has joined the criminal investigation involving the owner of the Georgia plant.
Associated Press writer Jim Drinkard contributed to this report.
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