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.
That's not all that's dropping at the FDA in terms of food safety. The analysis also shows:
"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.
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.
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. Firms that produce high-risk foods more susceptible to contamination, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, are supposed to be inspected every year or two.
Inspections 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.