FDA faulted over state inspections

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is relying more often on states to inspect food plants but is failing to properly monitor those state inspections or follow through on their findings, the Department of Health and Human Services watchdog has concluded.

In a report released Wednesday, the department’s inspector general found that a lack of resources is forcing the FDA to lean more heavily on its counterparts at the state level to inspect plants responsible for everything from packing to processing foods.

More than half the agency’s inspections were done by state officials in fiscal 2009, up from 42 percent four years earlier, according to the report. If these inspections are not done properly, they can expose consumers to sometimes life-threatening illnesses.

A deadly salmonella outbreak linked to a Georgia peanut processing plant in 2009 occurred after the plant had been inspected several times by state officials working on the FDA’s behalf.

Wednesday’s report confirms several weaknesses in that relationship, almost all of which the FDA acknowledged were indeed problems. “The report documents glitches we’re aware of. . . . These are things we are working on,” said Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods.

The report found that the FDA has failed to ensure that the states have completed the number of inspections assigned to them. Of the 41 states the FDA was working with in 2009, eight did not complete 10 percent of the 2,170 inspections they were responsible for that year. The agency paid for 130 of the inspections that were not done.

The report did not specify how much was paid in those instances. But it did state that the FDA spent more than $8 million for state contract inspections in fiscal 2009.

The FDA also did not do its part in monitoring the inspections as required by law, according to the report.

When audits were conducted, the most common problem cited had to do with the state inspectors’ inability to identify violations. At least 32 percent of the 419 inspectors audited had at least one deficiency. The report cited instances in which inspectors failed to note evidence of rodents or a leaky roof above exposed food.

Even when inspectors noted food safety violations, FDA officials who reviewed the inspectors’ reports did not properly classify all of them, the report said.

Officials responsible for 11 states said they did not classify some incidents as serious and in need of official action because they thought they were not allowed to, the report said.

Officials in another 11 states said that FDA was not always notified when actions were taken and therefore could not determine if the violations were properly addressed.

Investigation continues in NC E. coli O157 outbreak

State health officials continued through the weekend to investigate 24 cases of suspected E. coli infections with links to the North Carolina State Fair.

Officials have confirmed that eight of the cases are the O157:H7 strain of E. coli; five people have been hospitalized, three with kidney failure.

Health officials are continuing their detective work to pinpoint the source of the bacteria, by interviewing the affected people as well as fairgoers who did not get sick, according to Julie Henry, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Penn goes state way for restaurant inspection and disclosure

A new law will overhaul the way Pennsylvania’s restaurants are inspected.

newsworks.org reports the law imposes a uniform set of safety standards for every restaurant, whether it’s state or local officials carrying out inspections.

Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said every report will also be posted online.

"I think that’s going to be the big change. We certainly saw it in the state, when we went to an online system. As soon as you know that your inspection is online, for the public view, you certainly are more attuned to making those little changes that are important for food safety."

Redding said the Agriculture Department has been pushing for the changes for more than five years. The law will go into effect in January.

So if online inspection reports make operators “more attuned” then how much more attuned would operators be, with public disclosure on the premises, like a letter grade on the door.