Charles E. Schumer, senator for New York, has sent a letter to the agency urging it to adopt a three-pronged policy to help improve conditions at food warehouses and better inform the public about future violations.
He said that violations are not made public when they are found at the moment and punishments are far too lax, which makes it more likely that problems remain unfixed or be repeated.
The FDA cited more than 90 food facilities or processing sites for insanitary conditions last year.
This included inadequate hygienic practices at a frozen pizza dough and cheese grating facility, insects at a site that produces rice and dead mice and rats at a cookie manufacturing plant.
Responding to the statement, FDA told FoodQualityNews it is working to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most sweeping reform of food safety laws in the country for more than 70 years.
"Under FSMA, the FDA has proposed key rules, such as those on Preventive Controls for Human Food and Produce Safety Standards.
"The proposed rule on preventive controls will require food facilities to have a written plan in place to identify potential hazards, put in place steps to address them, verify that the steps are working, and outline how to correct any problems that arise.
"The proposed rule on produce safety will require farms that grow, harvest, pack, or hold fruits or vegetables covered by the proposed rule to follow standards aimed at preventing microbiological contamination of their produce. These and other preventive measures being implemented under FSMA will help to manage risks to our food system."
Firstly, Schumer said that every site that receives a warning letter for food safety violations should be immediately categorized as a High Risk Facility and the agency should increase inspections for them.
Second, there is no process for restaurants, other customers and consumers to be made aware of violations and to react accordingly, he said.
FDA should provide a database of these facilities and violations on the website or through another method.
Third, the FDA should enhance the penalties for plants with repeated food safety violations and subsequent inspections.
For Fiscal Year 2015, the fees associated with these re-inspections are estimated to be an hourly rate of $217.
Schumer said this is insufficient and will not encourage strict compliance.
Current process involves an initial inspection, observations shared with the facility owner, and if violations are found and not immediately addressed, a warning letter to the owner.
It can take the FDA months to act on inspections and restaurants that buy from violating food processers may never find out, he said.
Increased inspections and fines
Schumer said that FDA should increase the regularity of inspections of all food facilities or processing sites for insanitary conditions.
FDA only inspects “high risk” food facilities once every three years, and less often for those that have not yet received violations.
More inspections will also benefit facilities that have had small violations, who should be allowed to quickly rectify the problem and be able to return to business, he said.
FDA should increase the fees for violations to deter disgusting conditions and create a database so restaurants and consumers may search specific food facilities, caterers and suppliers to find violation information.
Schumer said the current system is too private and FDA letter are only made available annually, at the end of the year.
“At the end of 2014, the FDA quietly revealed hundreds of food safety violations at food processing facilities over the course of the year, and everyone from restaurant-goers to owners are appalled by some of the disgusting conditions at warehouses that supply our food,” he said.
“The FDA should immediately implement a three-pronged plan that would boost the number of inspections, create a public, searchable database about violations and increase the fines to improve conditions and deter future violations.”
The Food Safety Modernization Act expanded food safety oversight and made changes to the inspection process but Schumer said efforts are ‘clearly still inadequate’.
The legislation calls for all “high-risk” domestic food facilities to be inspected within five years of the bill’s signing and then, at least once every three years after that.
All other domestic sites must be inspected within seven years of the bill’s signing and then at least once every five years after that.