President Obama’s call last Sunday for a top-to-bottom review of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is good news for consumers, and so is the increasing attention Congress is paying to food safety. A Senate Agriculture Committee hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 5. The recall of two years’ worth of production from a peanut butter factory in Georgia underlines critical weaknesses in the FDA’s inspection and enforcement capacity. FDA can remedy some of the problems, but to get the major improvement we need Congress must act as well.

The FDA has been so severely weakened by cutbacks in staffing and funding, and is so poorly equipped to deal with today’s food industry, with its mass production and distribution systems and global sourcing of ingredients, that it can no longer keep food safe. The GAO has put food safety on its “high-risk” list for the third year in a row.

President Obama’s first step must be appointment of a new FDA Commissioner who can improve FDA’s use of its existing capacity. However, Congress must also act soon to modernize the agency and give it the additional resources and authority it desperately needs.

The first step in overhauling the FDA should be requiring that food processing plants are inspected every year. The FDA was almost completely unaware of the problems at Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), despite the fact that problems had existed for some time. However FDA had not been there since 2001. In fact, this gap is fairly typical -- FDA inspects food processing facilities once every five to 10 years on average. Oversight of PCA was contracted out to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which repeatedly found unsanitary conditions, but never took stringent enforcement action.

A recent Consumers Union poll found that two-thirds of Americans want the FDA to inspect domestic and foreign food-processing facilities at least once a month.

The FDA should also undertake a major investigation of an industry after there is a serious disease outbreak, to identify causes, and implement lessons learned, the way we do after a plane crash. Salmonella contaminated peanut butter at another Georgia factory just two years ago, yet this also failed to trigger an FDA visit to PCA. The FDA admitted on January 30 that it did not even know PCA had started making peanut butter until 2008, when some of its output was turned back at the Canadian border because it contained metal fragments. Thus the FDA did not inspect the PCA plant until January 2009, even though it had inspected other producers in the wake of the 2007 Georgia ConAgra salmonella peanut butter disease outbreak.

More basic reform will require Congressional action. Congress should require the FDA to inspect every food producer in the United States at least once a year, and provide funding through registration fees for this work.

Congress must give the FDA mandatory recall authority, and require companies to disclose the retail stores, schools and nursing homes that get recalled products. We are now at over 800 products recalled in the PCA outbreak, and counting. The FDA and local public health authorities should not be the only ones who are told which schools, nursing homes and stores got these products. USDA now publishes these consignees on its web site during a meat recall, so that consumers can know if their local stores and institutions are involved, and protect themselves. The FDA should do the same.

And if a company finds an adulterant like salmonella in its own testing, as PCA did on twelve occasions, it should not be legal for a company to keep that information to itself. Congress should require that it inform the FDA and explain how it disposed of the product, and what remedial steps it will take to prevent the problem from happening again.

Prompted by the eight deaths and more than 500 illnesses attributed to salmonella in peanut butter produced by PCA, and by the fact that the company apparently shipped product that it knew to be contaminated, Congress has begun considering FDA reform legislation. Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) introduced a bill on Jan. 28, and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is expected to introduce another bill this week. Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinBiden administration to back bill ending crack, powder cocaine sentence disparity: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats await Manchin decision on voting rights bill Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda MORE (D-Ill.) is also developing a bill expected to be introduced soon.

Consumers Union advises consumers not to eat products containing peanut ingredients like crackers or cookies, unless consumers check with the manufacturer and make sure that none of it comes from PCA.