As Americans increasingly put food from U.S. megafarms or foreign producers on their dinner plates, the nation’s food safety system is being overtaxed, leaving consumers at risk, Christian Science Monitor reports.

The food safety system, the Monitor notes, was build on 70-year-old laws “written before genetic engineering was invented, frozen foods had gone mainstream, or Interstate highways enabled a head of lettuce to make it – still crisp – from California to New York in the dead of winter.”

Critics say the nation’s patchwork of food safety legislation leaves gaps that lead to problems such as the recent outbreak of salmonella at Iowa egg farms that sickened more than 1,500 people and prompted the recall of more than 500 million eggs. Food safety is overseen by 15 federal agencies along with state agencies. The chief federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, have overlapping responsibilities and differing approaches to assuring food safety.

Meanwhile, the FDA gets approximately 40 percent of government food safety funding, while it’s responsible for monitoring about 80 percent of the food supply. That leaves it unable to to inspect many food production facilities regularly and, some critics say, results in problems going unrecognized until it is too late, as in the case of the egg recall.

“In my mind, [the FDA] doesn’t have an inspection system,” said Scott Hurd, a former Agriculture Department food safety official.  “It has a ‘wander around and hope you bump into something’ ” approach.

The increasing amount of fruits and vegetables imported to the U.S., particularly from Mexico, also poses huge challenges. In 2008, nearly half of the fresh fruit consumed in the U.S., and nearly one-fifth of the vegetables, were imported, according to the Monitor. The Food and Drug Administration screens some of those imports at the border, focusing on products and producers with problematic safety records. Still, this approach has led the FDA to examine less than 1 percent of fresh produce imports to the U.S. between 2000 and 2007, according to the Government Accountability Office.

U.S. food safety advocates hoped to reform the nation’s food safety system legislatively. In 2009, the House passed a bill expanding the FDA’s authority to make mandatory recalls and requiring more frequent inspections, among other changes. But a similar bill has been stalled in the Senate for more than a year. If a bill isn’t passed in this year’s lame-duck congressional session, food safety reformers would have to start anew next year.

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