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updated 3/3/2009 4:20:09 PM ET 2009-03-03T21:20:09

Tainted peanuts. Unsterilized syringes. Salmonella in Mexican chili peppers. A contaminated blood thinner from China that sent patients into life-threatening shock.

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Every few months, the Food and Drug Administration goes into fire-brigade mode, rushing to get control over another safety crisis. The agency that regulates products worth 25 cents of every dollar spent by U.S. consumers seems overwhelmed by its own mission.

Some say the FDA is broken, and others want to break it up — by moving food safety to a new office.

“You’ve got an agency that quite frankly is either non-functional, or dysfunctional, or maybe all of the above,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who as the longest serving member in the House, has investigated many agencies, including the FDA.

“Bet yourself a new hat or a fine dinner that you are going to have a scandal a month,” Dingell added. “They are running around like a lot of headless chickens.”

Agency is struggling
Others, even some critics, see tentative improvements. Many defenders acknowledge the FDA is struggling.

“’Broken’ is the kind of word that’s sort of a fighting word,” said Dr. Frank Torti, the cancer researcher serving as acting FDA commissioner. “We have recognized for a long time that more is needed. Because of a lack of (legal) authorities and inadequate resources, it’s really hard to do the job.”

Restoring the FDA’s reputation will be a major challenge for an Obama administration that strode into town promising competent government.

The decline didn’t happen overnight. There’s no single, simple cause. In 2007, an independent group of science advisers concluded that the FDA was in danger of failing in its mission. “American lives are at risk,” said their report. It wasn’t the first alarm.

As the pharmaceutical and food industries went global in recent years, the FDA fell behind on inspections. Its legal powers failed to keep up with fast-changing industries. Its own scientists said it grew too cozy with drug companies and tuned out signals of safety problems.

Money for research grew scarce. The agency struggled to answer such seemingly simple questions as how far from a cow pasture a farmer should plant his spinach patch to keep out bad germs. Internal computer systems were allowed to decay, although they are essential to monitoring drug safety trends or blocking shady imports.

The FDA drifted. During the Bush administration, it went long periods without a permanent commissioner who could be an advocate before Congress. Lawmakers piled new responsibilities on the agency, often without the funds to carry them out.

Series of scandals
This past year’s safety problems — homegrown and imported — illustrate the FDA’s weakness.

Last winter, heparin from China contaminated by a mysterious ingredient prompted an international recall. The blood thinner, used to treat people during heart surgery and kidney dialysis, was triggering life-threatening allergic reactions.

Summer brought a salmonella outbreak blamed first on tomatoes, and later on hot peppers as well.

This winter, it was salmonella again, in peanut products. A small company’s apparent disregard for basic sanitation led to the recall of more than 2,800 foods that used its ingredients.

More than 2,100 people were sickened in these incidents. At least nine deaths have been blamed on tainted peanuts alone.

Last week, another problem surfaced. Federal prosecutors in North Carolina obtained guilty pleas from two employees of AM2PAT, a company that manufactured syringes in unsterile conditions and covered it up with phony paperwork.

Prosecutors say hundreds of patients were sickened and five died. The FBI is looking for the company’s owner, who may have fled the country.

Different products were involved in the incidents, but some of the same FDA shortcomings: inspections, legal authority and technology.

The pharmaceutical plant in China that made the heparin was never inspected by the FDA, partly because the agency confused its name with a similar name belonging to another factory. It was unclear how many foreign drug facilities fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction because one government database lists about 7,000 and another, 3,000.

Sending inspectors to China used to involve first waiting for permission from the Chinese government. The situation has improved, under a U.S.-China agreement that led to the opening of FDA offices there.

The tomato outbreak last summer underscored other kinds of gaps. Produce companies are not required to have a food safety plan. And the FDA lacks legal authority to require a system for tracing foods back to the farm. Investigators had to sift through piles of paper records as losses mounted for tomato growers. Dingell said the FDA looked like the Keystone Kops.

In the peanut butter outbreak, the FDA has been slowed because of the length of time it takes to identify positively a strain of salmonella. The agency wants to replace current lab tests that can take a week or more with technology that cuts the wait to a day or two.

FDA inspectors quickly descended on the small Georgia facility at the center of the peanut outbreak. But they didn’t get the whole story immediately. The FDA had to invoke bioterror laws to get lab reports that ultimately showed the company shipped tainted peanuts. Meantime, the agency had no authority to order a food recall.

“The FDA has been trying to do so much with so little for so long that they really have lost the vision of what would make an effective food safety program,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which wants to set up a separate food agency.

Congress has been pumping more money into the FDA the last couple of years. And the Obama administration seems willing to consider big changes, especially on food safety.

The two leading candidates for FDA commissioner are physicians from outside the agency. One is Baltimore health commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, a pediatrician who has taken on the FDA over risks in children’s cough and cold drugs. The other is Margaret Hamburg, a bioterrorism expert who served in the Clinton administration and as New York’s health commissioner.

“One area where we could see bipartisan cooperation might be the strengthening of the FDA,” said Dr. Paul Stolley, a former department head at the University of Maryland medical center who had a stint as a visiting scientist at the FDA. “I don’t think ideological differences should interfere.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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