The federal agency that's been front and center in warning the public about tainted spinach and contaminated peanut butter is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago.

The cuts by the Food and Drug Administration come despite a barrage of high-profile food recalls.

"We have a food safety crisis on the horizon," said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

Between 2003 and 2006, FDA food safety inspections dropped 47 percent, according to a database analysis of federal records by The Associated Press.

FDA 'just can't manage the job'
That's not all that's dropping at the FDA in terms of food safety. The analysis also shows:

* There are 12 percent fewer FDA employees in field offices who concentrate on food issues.
* Safety tests for U.S.-produced food have dropped nearly 75 percent, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year, according to the agency's own statistics.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the FDA, at the urging of Congress, increased the number of food inspectors and inspections amid fears that the nation's food system was vulnerable to terrorists. Inspectors and inspections spiked in 2003, but now both have fallen enough to erase the gains.

Getting worse
"The only difference is now it's worse, because there are more inspections to do - more facilities - and more food coming into America, which requires more inspections," said Tommy Thompson, who as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services pushed to increase the numbers. He's now part of a coalition lobbying to turn around several years of stagnant spending.

The Bush administration's budget request for 2008 includes an additional $10.6 million for food safety at the FDA; the lobbying group said 10 times that increase is needed. Even though the FDA increased its overall spending on food between 2003 and 2006, those increases failed to keep pace with rising personnel costs.

"It's not just outsiders like us who have been watching it for a while. People who worked in the Bush administration are coming out and saying the agency is not working at its current resource levels. It just can't manage the job," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

Members of Congress also have renewed the focus on the safety of the nation's food supply amid highly publicized recalls sparked by food poisoning, including last year when E. coli was found to taint fresh spinach sold coast to coast. That outbreak killed three people and sickened nearly 200.

From spinach to peanut butter
The latest big recall involves peanut butter believed tainted with salmonella, a bacterium found in feces that can cause severe diarrhea. The outbreak has sickened at least 329 people in 41 states since August, federal health officials say.

Food safety experts say it would be impossible to know whether increased numbers of inspectors and inspections would have prevented the outbreak, linked to Peter Pan and Great Value brands made by ConAgra Foods Inc., or other recent food poisoning scares.

The FDA had last inspected ConAgra's peanut butter plant in Sylvester, Ga., in February 2005 and had found no problems, agency spokesman Michael Herndon said.

Firms that produce high-risk foods more susceptible to contamination, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, are supposed to be inspected every year, unless they have a good safety record. Then inspections are done every two or three years, Herndon said.

For other foods, the FDA rotates inspections, depending on resources.

FDA food inspectors look for filth, decomposition, adulteration with pesticides and industrial chemicals and the illegal use of color or food additives, according to the agency.

Search for the sources
Inspectors also look for sources of possible contamination, such as flies. For instance, inspectors are asked to count flies, as well as how often they land on a food product. They're also told to look for any open doors or damaged window screens that could allow the insects to flit back and forth between the product and, say, a toilet, floor drain or garbage can, according to agency documents.

The shrunken ranks of inspectors have left the nation once again vulnerable, especially to problems in imported food, Thompson and others said. Doyle, whose center studies ways to improve food safety, called the nation's growing appetite for imported foods the "coming threat."

The United States last year imported about $10 billion more in food, feed and beverages than it exported, according to Census figures. Even as imports grow in volume and diversity, the number of FDA inspections is shrinking: agency inspectors physically examined just 1.3 percent of food imports last year, about three-quarters as much as in 2003.

The FDA, meanwhile, says it is concentrating its efforts on areas where the potential threat to the public's health is greatest.

"We're applying resources to targeted areas. So in a way, it's not a matter of 'Are you inspecting one out of 100 or 10 out of 100?' The real issue is if you can define risk. Are you applying the 10 inspectors to the 10 areas of concern? Then it's essentially you're covering 100 percent of your problem, which is not covering 100 percent of the universe," FDA commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said.

FDA inspectors, for example, visited the ConAgra plant on Feb. 14, a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the agency it suspected the company's peanut butter was the source of the outbreak.

Reacting rather than preventing
For one member of Congress, that's not good enough.

"We are reacting to crises rather than preventing or minimizing them," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chairwoman of the House subcommittee that oversees the FDA and its budget. DeLauro said she worried food inspections were becoming a "stepchild" of the regulatory agency.

Von Eschenbach said the agency's food safety system can be reactive but is aggressive nonetheless.

"What you saw with the spinach and certainly what you saw with the peanut butter, is when we see those signals we're going to act to protect the public health," von Eschenbach said.

In the meantime, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is investigating the adequacy of the FDA's efforts to protect the nation's food supply, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said.

A recent Government Accountability Office report noted that most of the $1.7 billion the federal government allocates to food safety goes to the Agriculture Department, which is responsible for regulating about 20 percent of the food supply. The FDA, responsible for most of the other 80 percent, gets about 24 percent of the total.

When the FDA finds violations with a food product, it asks companies to voluntarily fix any problems. The agency also can request a company to recall a product or it can ask that a product be seized by law enforcement.

The Agriculture Department said this month it also would switch to a "risk-based" inspection plan for plants that process poultry, pork and beef. Plants that make products with a high risk for contamination, like hamburger, and that have had past violations would face greater scrutiny. Others than make less risky products, like cooked, canned ham, and have clean records would be inspected less.