Although they are the first line of defense in food safety, local and state health agencies face debilitating financial and organizational constraints, according to a recent study conducted by the GW School of Public Health and Health Services.
State agencies conduct about 80 percent of all food inspections, a critical part of the food safety system. But scarce resources and nonuniform practices make it difficult to maintain consistent inspection standards nationwide, the study, “Stronger Partnerships for Safer Food,” found.
Local and state health officials also find it difficult to collaborate with other states and federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, during outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
“When somebody gets sick, he or she calls the health department,” said Joseph Corby, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials. “We have to learn how to share information between the local and national level.”
The study pointed to recent salmonella outbreaks in peanut butter and produce as an example of how quickly a local foodborne illness can become a national problem. Paul Jarris, the executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said that foodborne illnesses may be occurring more often.
“Our food comes from all over [the world],” he said. “We don’t eat seasonally anymore.”
The study also found that local and state agencies across the country are chronically understaffed and underfunded. Tight budgets have forced some agencies to combine health departments with other towns or to dissolve completely.
“The system now is like an iceberg, with the local departments doing a lot of the work and making up most of the system,” Corby said. “Let’s give them more money at the local and state level.”
Improvements to the food safety system are usually aimed solely at the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies. The study recommended that Congress establish a stronger, more centralized system that mandates standardized rules and practices for local and state agencies. The new system would be led by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s very clear that reform at the federal level is important, but reform at the local and state level is important as well,” said GW professor of research Michael Taylor, one of the study’s authors.
The study said that Congress should give at least $100 million each year to state and local health agencies, increasing to $350 million over five years. That money would be distributed by the FDA in the form of grants.
Taylor said that the study, which incorporated advice from health officials around the country, had been well-received.
“It reflects a pretty good consensus of opinion,” he said.