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The Administration Focuses on Improving Food Safety

February 25, 2015
The Obama administration wants to establish a new agency that would be housed within the Department of Health and Human Services and serve as the primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards. The Agency would be named the Food Safety Administration, the Obama administration said in its new budget request. The New York Times covered the story here:

...At least 15 government agencies — from the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — have some role in making sure the food Americans eat is safe, according to the Government Accountability Office, a situation that has defied streamlining for decades...

Entrenched bureaucracies have always been difficult to reconcile. The Agriculture Department and the F.D.A., the two main food safety agencies, have for decades carried out different mandates, operated different types of inspections programs, and required different levels of training and education for inspectors. Long-running turf battles between the agencies would inevitably complicate efforts to consolidate them, experts say.

But to supporters of the president’s push, the nation’s food safety system is crying out for change. According to the C.D.C., an estimated 87 million Americans are sickened each year by contaminated food, 371,000 are hospitalized with food-related illness and 5,700 die from food-related disease. The federal food safety system is “high-risk” because of “inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources,” according to a report by the G.A.O. released last week.

“A single food safety agency would ensure one person is held accountable for food safety, research, prevention, inspections, investigations and labeling,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut. “There would be no more confusion around overlapping jurisdictions.”

Most of the responsibility for food safety lies currently with the F.D.A., which has oversight for about 80 percent of the food that Americans eat, including seafood, vegetables, fruit, dairy products and shelled eggs. The Agriculture Department oversees meat, poultry and processed eggs. But the two agencies perform their inspections duties differently.

The differences in inspecting food from abroad are even more stark. Countries that want to export meat to the United States are supposed to prove their inspection system is equivalent to the Agriculture Department’s programs. But the F.D.A. rarely inspects overseas plants to verify those claims, and F.D.A. food sleuths examine less than 2 percent of the food that arrives at American ports. A law passed in 2010 is supposed to strengthen the F.D.A.’s ability to inspect both foreign and domestic foods.

But food safety inspectors at the Agriculture Department still see the F.D.A.’s program as nowhere near as rigorous as theirs, and they worry that consolidating inspection functions into a single agency would inevitably weaken the Agriculture Department’s standards.

“This would drag us down to their minuscule standards,” said Stan Painter, an Agriculture food safety inspector in Alabama, who is president of the inspectors’ union. “They don’t do inspections. They run in for a visit.”

Officials at the Agriculture Department and the F.D.A. declined to say whether they would support a combined agency, adding that they are moving forward with their respective duties as Congress considers the president’s proposal.

The House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture has scheduled a hearing on the Agriculture Department’s budget for next week, but it is unclear if the proposal for a single food safety agency will get much attention...

Such advocates have not won over the skeptics. Doug Powell, a former professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the publisher of the, said creating a single agency might ultimately provide less protection than the administration or lawmakers like Ms. DeLauro want to admit.

“The research doesn’t support the idea that a single agency would protect food safety any more than the system U.S. currently has in place,” Mr. Powell said. “Look at the United Kingdom and the horse-meat scandal or Canada, which had a massive beef recall a few years ago. Both of those countries have single food safety agencies, and it didn’t stop contaminated products from reaching the public.”

Interestingly enough the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture on Friday announced the availability of more than $160 million in funding for research, education, and extension projects.

NIFA will fund the awards through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. It released six separate requests for applications through the AFRI program, one which addresses food safety. $6 million dollars would go towards a food safety program that is designed to further develop and promote the use of innovative and sustainable food processing technologies and better understand, characterize, and mitigate antimicrobial resistance across the food chain, from farm-to-fork.