A US Congressional hearing has opened to examine the role of regulatory bodies in protecting food safety.

A spate of recent large scale food scares has drawn the issue of food safety into the public eye. The scares have increased concern that the US Food and Drug Administration is unable to ensure the safety and security of the nation’s food supply.

Last year, three people died and nearly 200 fell ill after eating Natural Selections spinach, which was contaminated with E. coli. Meanwhile, in February peanut butter produced by ConAgra was subject to a nationwide recall after it was linked to an outbreak of salmonella that affected more than 400 consumers across the US.

The opening statements from members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee this morning (24 April) showed a consensus that the FDA is failing in its duty to protect the American public.

In his opening remarks, chairman of the committee Congressman John Dingell of Michigan said: “This is an important hearing on the threat to public health posed by contaminated food products and, frankly, the inadequacies of the FDA.”

According to Congressman Gene Green of Texas, the FDA’s failure is the consequence of “inadequate resources, inadequate standards and inadequate enforcement.” 

“Each outbreak and each food recall has chipped away at the confidence of the American public,” he told the subcommittee. “We owe it to consumers and to food manufacturers to restore this confidence.”

The FDA’s insufficient funding and the improper use of funds were regularly identified by committee members as a source of concern. According to Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a more centralised approach is key to tightening food safety standards. “We have to find ways of more efficient uses of government money. We have to make the system far more efficient,” he said.

Another more sinister cause for concern highlighted by the committee members is the possibility that acts of terrorism could be perpetuated through the nation’s improperly policed food supply.

“A very real threat exists when a terrorist could easily put a toxin in a food product working its way through the food chain. It is a threat that is very real. It will undermine confidence in food supplies and wreak havoc on the sector,” the committee heard.

With the opening statements now concluded, the hearing has turned to the personal testimony of US consumers who have been affected by food borne illnesses.

The hearing is expected to continue for a number of weeks.