With one food recall after another making headlines, Congress appears intent on beefing up federal government food inspection activities. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a high profile hearing last month, calling the current and past commissioners of the FDA before it to outline the agency’s problems and offer prescriptions.

The consensus among the former commissioners is the FDA is overworked, under-funded, and not up to the task before it, especially in the area of food safety.

“Simply put, our food safety system is broken,” said Dr. David Kessler, who served as FDA commissioner from 1990-1997.

Kessler attributed many of the problems to what he called “a confluence of factors,” chronic under-funding, a lack of enforcement authority and severely outdated scientific and regulatory frameworks. It’s all led, he says, to a lack of confidence in the FDA, which has diverted more of its limited resources to drugs and less to food inspections.

“Food safety cannot be delegated to second-tier management within the agency, and the fact is that food is a second-tier priority within the FDA,” Kessler charged. “In addition, the current structure is fragmented in FDA. Responsibilities for food are spread across the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and the Office of Regulatory Affairs.”

Congressional Democrats are joining a growing number of food safety experts calling for increased funding for government inspections, countering the Bush Administration’s trend toward encouraging more industry self-regulation. Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) agreed with Kessler that there were clear warning signs that the “FDA is in crises.” He said the committee would focus on agency budget cuts, its ability to enforce regulations and the legal authorities the agency has to do its job.