Bringing New Agency to Food Safety

Could a more unified food safety system be in our future? The Obama Administration may be poised to act on a decade-long recommendation to create a single federal food safety agency, according to The Hagstorm Report. A consumer advocate told Hagstorm that the food safety merger would likely occur after proposed changes to other overlapping agencies, provided Obama is granted permission to do so by Congress.

A single food safety agency could help alleviate some issues with funding and policy enforcement. Dr. Marion Nestle notes that the “USDA gets about three quarters of the total appropriation for food safety (for roughly one quarter of the food supply) whereas FDA gets one quarter of the appropriation for three quarters of the food supply.”

Currently, responsibilities for food safety (including regulation, inspection, enforcement and more) are split among a whopping 15 government agencies, with at least 30 different laws used to govern the system. Though the FDA oversees about 80 percent of the food supply, other agencies also play essential roles: the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for tracking foreign foods and enforcing county-of-origin labeling (COOL), the Federal Trade Commission oversees product claims in food marketing and the Department of Commerce issues patents on foods and seeds.

This web of regulation can lead to unnecessary overlap and dangerous lack of oversight. With eggs, for example, the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of whole, “shell” eggs, but producers can also volunteer to have shell eggs graded by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service then monitors eggs processed into egg products; which includes eggs that may appear to be fresh in your favorite restaurant entree. In addition, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) ensures that egg laying hens are healthy at birth, while the FDA monitors the safety of their feed.

“The existing food system, like many other federal programs and policies, evolved piecemeal, typically in response to particular health threats or economic crises” observes the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). In their first annual report to Congress, GAO called for a “detailed analysis of alternative food safety organizational structures,” highlighting a single food safety agency as a possible solution. The GAO has been reporting on the fragmented nature of our food safety system for over a decade: more recently, the President’s Council on Food Safety and the National Academy of Science joined them in recommending a consolidated approach.

A single food safety agency could help alleviate some issues with funding and policy enforcement. New York University professor and food activist Dr. Marion Nestle notes that the "USDA gets about three quarters of the total appropriation for food safety (for roughly one quarter of the food supply) whereas FDA gets one quarter of the appropriation for three quarters of the food supply." This discrepancy could be reduced if all food safety funding went to one agency. A unified system could also cut down on future costs. In 2008, the Farm Bill assigned the USDA jurisdiction over catfish, despite the fact that the FDA presides over all other seafood. The USDA estimates that it will now need an additional $30 million for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 in order to enforce this congressionally-mandated program.

The GAO also points to the success of other nations in making the case for a single agency: “our work on seven other countries’ experiences between 1997 and 2004 in consolidating their food systems found... that the countries experienced benefits, such as improved public confidence in their food safety systems.”

Opponents of the recommendation say we need to do more to streamline food safety before bringing it under one roof. “Let’s make some progress in stopping food poisoning and then later pick out the new stationary," quips food safety lawyer Bill Marler. Former Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond told Food Safety News that many problems could be alleviated by simply reevaluating jurisdictions, noting that “it does not take a single food safety system to place all eggs under the USDA."

The GAO admits that more work is needed. "While the [government's] Food Safety Working Group has taken steps to increase interagency collaboration on food safety, it has not developed a government wide performance plan that provides a comprehensive picture of the federal government’s food safety efforts." Such a plan would be able to serve as a blueprint for decision makers, helping them see what a restructured food safety system might look like. In addition, a merger might take years of trial and error before it was streamlined, and “a detailed analysis of the advantages and disadvantages and the potential challenges that could arise if implemented has yet to be conducted."

Thankfully, there is still time to weigh the pros and cons of restructuring. If Obama does plan to unite food safety agencies, he must first obtain "consolidation authority," or the ability to bring together agencies to make the government more efficient. This power has not been granted since Ronald Regan’s presidency and currently awaits Congressional approval.

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