Recent food scares in the US have focused attention on the work of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) ,which many believe lacks sufficient funds to carry out its role effectively, and, in the view of some, requires structural reform. Peter Crosskey investigates.

Food safety has become a hot political issue in most developed markets, and nowhere more than in the US, where a host of food scares and the changing shape of the global food industry have heaped pressure on the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the lead government agency charged with policing the food chain and protecting consumers.

The recent cases of melamine contamination in Chinese wheat gluten, the discovery of tetrodotoxin in fish also imported from China, and last year's E. coli outbreak in home-produced spinach have kept the FDA busy, and just as crucially have drawn attention to the issue of how food safety procedures are structured and resourced.

Imported foods are regularly blamed for food safety incidents but the extent of the task facing the FDA in policing food imports alone is huge. According to former FDA associate commissioner William Hubbard, samples are taken from barely 1% of inbound goods.

Only a freak chance event could have warned of the recent melamine contamination or identified the rogue batch of toxic fish in Chicago last month. With 13m consignments a year arriving at the borders and only 300 inspectors to make physical checks, it is clear that the detection of contamination at point-of-entry comes down to exceptionally good luck. Moreover, one import alert can list tens or hundreds of companies whose products are to be detained automatically, without inspection, clogging up holding areas.

In addition to policing imports, the FDA also inspects US food factories. But Hubbard points out that at current staffing levels, these 200,000 US sites could only expect a routine visit once every ten to 15 years.

The changing structure of the global food industry also exacerbates the challenge facing regulators such as the FDA.

Globalisation means that basic ingredient production has migrated to low-cost countries. So wheat gluten, used in thousands of food products, is sourced primarily from China where as much as 80% of the world's supply originates.

Food manufacturing in the US today depends more on imported ingredients than ever before, with every finished product leaving an audit trail for each of its ingredients. Over the past four years, the total value of food imports has risen by 40% to US$64bn. Imports now account for 13% of the national diet, including nearly 80% of fish and over 30% of fruit, juice and nuts. Meanwhile, the number of FDA staff inspecting inbound consignments has fallen.

The problem of how to police this area has precipitated the proposal of some draconian measures. America's longest-serving Representative, John Dingell, is prepared to contemplate stopping food imports from China "until such time that FDA can assure the American consumer of the safety of these imports". He is currently evaluating a report from the FDA on Chinese food imports and what the federal agency does to monitor their quality.

For the FDA, factory inspections in China are a no-go zone. "FDA has no authority to conduct inspections in China," an FDA spokesman explains. "FDA must be invited by a foreign country to conduct inspections in foreign territory."

Dingell is unlikely to flinch before the scale of the problem. But the administration may find the scale of the solution hard to fund.

When asked about Dingell's suggestion that Chinese food imports could be blocked, the FDA spokesman is defensive. "FDA has issued several imports alerts over years that have prevented suspect product from China as well as other countries from entering the US," he states.

While China features prominently in the FDA's import alerts, seafood and farmed fish from all over Asia, particularly India, have been flagged up for automatic detention after incidents involving veterinary drug residues and poor catch management. Likewise, pesticide residues and bacterial surface contamination, notably salmonella, have been found on fresh produce from Latin America and Mexico.

Facts such as these, carefully marshalled and presented, could strengthen the FDA's case for more resources. However, the FDA's contingency planning obligations have also squeezed daily operations.

In the current 2007 budget, the FDA allocated an additional $19.8m to building up a network of dedicated "food defense" laboratories to check food in the event of a terrorist attack on food. However, plans to balance this by closing more than half of its regional food laboratory network have drawn widespread criticism.

"Everyone can understand the importance of quickly and efficiently testing dangerous materials, which is but one of the responsibilities of these laboratories," says Californian Representative Tom Lantos. "Recent outbreaks of tainted spinach, with immediate testing in California, proved this urgent point."

The 2008 budget takes effect on 1 October. The federal agency has applied for $2.1bn, which includes a $21.8m cost of living award to retain the FDA's highly qualified and increasingly poachable workforce.

Payroll and accommodation takes up more than 80% of the FDA's total budget. The coming fiscal year includes the allocation of an extra $10.6m for food safety.

However, some politicians are calling for wholesale reform of how food safety is regulated. Since 1997, Senator Richard Durbin from Illinois has been campaigning for the integration of food safety into a single, coherent agency.

"Under current US law, food safety monitoring, inspection and labelling functions are spread across 12 federal agencies and sub-agencies and are governed by approximately 35 different laws," Durbin tells just-food. "Under the current framework, turf battles, overlap, inconsistencies and coordination problems are inevitable. My legislation, the Safe Food Act, would create a single, independent food safety agency within the Executive Branch to administer and enforce food safety laws."

Whether additional funding will be sufficient to generate the kind of change that Capitol Hill is demanding, or whether the call for more extensive reform will grow stronger, remains to be seen. First, the House Committee needs to understand the scale of the problem, which may surprise even seasoned campaigners.