A great Op-ed from the Herald Tribune: Decline in food-safety inspections could make you ill. Here’s an unappetizing sampling:

An Associated Press analysis of federal records found that safety inspections by the Food and Drug Administration plummeted 47 percent between 2003 and 2006. The same analysis showed that FDA safety tests on U.S.-produced food fell almost 75 percent during the same period. The news isn’t any better for imported foods, the AP reported. FDA inspectors physically checked 1.3 percent of imports, about three-quarters of the amount inspected in 2003.

Consumer Reports magazine tested four leading brands of broiler chickens last spring and found that 83 percent contained campylobacter or salmonella, the two chief bacterial causes of food-borne illness. That’s well above the 49 percent that tested positive for one or both of the pathogens in 2003, the magazine said.

Recalls and illness

"We have a food-safety crisis on the horizon," Michael Doyle, head of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, recently told the AP. If that sounds alarmist, consider the recent, massive recall of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter after 370 people in 41 states who ate the products fell ill from salmonella poisoning. And think back to last year’s recall of fresh spinach after three people died and almost 200 others were sickened by packages tainted with E. coli bacteria.

Make no mistake: The chances of falling seriously ill, or worse, from tainted food are still rather remote for most Americans. But the decline in inspections is worrisome, especially after post-Sept. 11 vows by federal officials to do a better job of safeguarding our nation’s food supply from attack by terrorists and plain old pathogens.

Funding issues

The Bush administration has proposed boosting funding for the FDA by $10.6 million next year. But Tommy Thompson, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and others contend a tenfold increase is warranted.

Multiple congressional committees are examining inspection rates and staffing levels, according to the AP. Among the items that should be addressed is a recent government report showing that most of the $1.7 billion in funding for food safety goes to the Department of Agriculture, although it regulates only about 20 percent of the food supply. The FDA, which oversees most of the supply, receives about 24 percent of that money.

Americans expect their government to make an aggressive effort to ensure that their food is safe. The plummeting inspection rates and the periodic, widespread outbreaks of food-borne illnesses are sufficient reasons to ask if the federal officials in charge are committed and competent.