by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Single-food-agency

Feb 3 2015

Obama’s budget calls for a single food safety agency!

Starting on page 82 of President Obama’s 150-page, $4 trillion 2016 federal budget is a section on food safety calling for creation of a single food safety agency.

The Budget proposes to consolidate the FSIS [the Food Safety and Inspection Service of USDA] and the food safety related components of the FDA to create a single new agency within HHS…A single Federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of food borne illnesses.  It would rationalize the food safety regulatory regime and allow the Federal government to better allocate resources and responsibilities.

Wow!  Food safety advocates in and out of government have been pushing for something like this since the early 1990s.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says:

The budget proposes an additional $301 million for the FDA to implement that law, though part of the money would come from user fees imposed on the food industry.

Where do I apply?

Is this a good idea?  It sure could be but the devil is in the details.

Does it have a chance in this Congress?  I’m not holding my breath.

Nov 27 2013

More on catfish inspection (absurdly enough)

My post yesterday about the politics of catfish inspection inspired comments that I need to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program, which requires this checklist for steps that must be taken by importers of meat, poultry, or processed egg products:

  1. Products must originate from certified countries and establishments eligible to export to the United States.
  2. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) restricts some products from entering the United States because of animal disease conditions in the country of origin (see APHIS Veterinary Services, National Center for Import and Export).
  3. Countries and establishments become eligible following an equivalence determination process by FSIS.
  4. Imported products must meet the same labeling requirements as domestically-produced products.
  5. After filing the necessary forms for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and meeting animal disease requirements of APHIS, all imported meat, poultry and processed egg products must be presented for inspection by FSIS at an official import establishment.

It’s not surprising if USDA’s import safety system is better than the FDA’s.  USDA gets $14 million a year to run its currently non-operating catfish inspection system.  The FDA gets $700,000 and, according to the Government Accountability Office, has managed pretty well with it (see yesterday’s post).

Definition is also an issue.  USDA rules apply to all catfish species.  But to protect American catfish producers, the FDA defined catfish as the North American species.  But Vietnam produces different species, which makes catfish inspection even weirder.

Although FDA has had some problems with seafood inspection, it is generally responsible for dealing with fish safety and has had seafood HACCP requirements in place since the mid-1990s.  The USDA does not have authority over fish; it is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.

Why should catfish be an exception?

Why are we even talking about which agency should be in charge of inspecting catfish?

If the politic fuss over catfish inspection reveals anything, it is why we so badly need a single food safety agency—one that combines and integrates the food safety functions of USDA and FDA—to ensure the safety of the American food supply.

Addition, November 28: Members of Congress urge repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program.

Apr 27 2012

American Enterprise Institute advocates single food-safety agency!

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. 

The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative (to say the least) think tank, has just issued a report on reforming the farm bill to ensure a safer food system.  Its stunning conclusion:

More feasibly, in the short to medium term, changes in food safety regulation should aim at correcting inconsistencies or loopholes that exist in US food safety laws.

For example, policymakers could merge the FSIS and the FDA to allow for a better allocation of resources and exploit potential return to scales.

Standardizing states’ detection systems for food-borne illnesses and collecting better data about the incidence of food-borne illnesses would make firms more accountable and help construct better food safety policies.

Merge the food safety functions of USDA and FDA?  This, of course, is precisely what food safety advocates and the Government Accountability Office have been urging since the early 1990s. 

Now, maybe, it has a chance?

Jan 17 2012

Rumor: a single food safety agency at long last?

According to rumors passed along by Dan Flynn at Food Safety News via the Hagstrom Report (an agricultural subscription news service costing $999 a year), the Office of Management and Budget wants to merge federal agencies, among them the food safety components of FDA and USDA.

Rumors are that the Obama administration wants to do this to make “food safety independent of USDA, which primarily exists to market and promote American farm products.”

If this happens, it could be one major benefit of cost-cutting measures.  At the moment, 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 inequity is a result of the way Congress funds the FDA—through agricultural appropriations committees, not, as any sensible person might expect, through health committees (this too needs to change).

The merger also would eliminate the dysfunctional distinctions between regulations for meat and poultry (USDA) and practically all other foods (FDA).   A merged agency could deal with the unpleasant fact that animal waste is the cause of many food safety problems with fruits and vegetables.

The idea of a single food safety agency is not new.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been calling for its creation since 1990 or earlier, most recently in 2011.

In the 2011 report, GAO said, as it has for years:

Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient uses of resources…The Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration are the primary food safety agencies, but 15 agencies are involved in some way.

These, GAO points out, administer at least 30 food-related laws.

In addition, GAO urges Congress to ask the National Academy of Science to consider several organizational structures that might work better than the current system:

  • A single food safety agency, either housed within an existing agency or established as an independent entity, that assumes responsibility for all aspects of food safety at the federal level
  • A single food safety inspection agency that assumes responsibility for food safety inspection activities, but not other activities, under an existing department, such as USDA or FDA
  •  A data collection and risk analysis center for food safety that consolidates data collected from a variety of sources and analyzes it at the national level to support risk-based decision making
  • A coordination mechanism that provides centralized, executive leadership for the existing organizational structure, led by a central chair who would be appointed by the president and have control over resources

The rumors do not say which of these options is favored.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about a single food safety agency as I am, in part because this and other issues remain to be resolved: where the new agency would go and what its resources might be.

And, as food safety lawyer Bill Marler points out, legal matters are also at stake:

We can’t overlook the legal issues in food safety. Right now there are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences, for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

So, let’s make some progress in stopping food poisoning and then later pick out the new stationery.

Former USDA official Richard Raymond, writing in Food Safety News argues:

It is my sincere belief that a merger of the two food safety agencies would be an unmitigated disaster in the short term because the cultures are so very different. And unless megadollars flowed with the merger, nothing more could be accomplished than is currently done.

And there are dozens of other valid reasons to “just say no” to the Administration’s thinking.

He suggests reading the comment posted on Dan Flynn’s article from Carol Tucker Foreman, also a former USDA official and a long-time food safety advocate.

The major point of her very long comment is that moving USDA’s meat and poultry inspection responsibilities to FDA

Would likely reduce the current level of health protection provided by food safety laws and curtail the progress that has been made in reducing foodborne illness.

The FDA, saddled by lack of funds, sufficient legal authority, and food safety leadership has been criticized…for its inability to provide a decent level of food safety protection in the domestic and imported food products it regulates.

…Today the FSIS [USDA] has surpassed the FDA in some areas. The agency has adequate resources and high official status in a relatively small Cabinet agency…FDA, despite its new law, is still strapped for funds, burdened by its low position at HHS and the need to manage multiple agendas…Reorganization would not address the continuing problems of either agency.

…We’re confident that trying to move other agencies to the FDA or HHS won’t save money. In fact we are confident it would reduce the effectiveness of the meat and poultry inspection program…leading to a potential increase in foodborne illness and the related costs. That makes it bad policy and a bad bargain.

But what if the new hypothetical single food safety agency does not go to FDA?  What if it goes someplace independent of either agency?   And what if the new entity started out with the highest possible safety standards, funded adequately?

If we are dealing with rumors, we can deal with dreams too, no?

Update, January 29Food SafetyNews says all rumors are false.  This isn’t going to happen because the meat industry doesn’t want it to happen.



Mar 21 2011

GAO calls for unified food safety system–yet again!

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, issued a report calling for a single food safety agency (see my post on this). 

The GAO is working hard on this issue.  It has just issued yet another report, this one called FEDERAL FOOD SAFETY OVERSIGHT: Food Safety Working Group Is a Positive First Step but Governmentwide Planning Is Needed to Address Fragmentation.

The report points out some of the alternatives it has suggested in the past:

  • A single food safety agency
  • A food safety inspection agency
  • A data collection and risk analysis center
  • A coordination mechanism led by a central chair

GAO says:

GAO and other organizations have regularly paired proposals for alternative food safety organizations with calls for comprehensive, unified, risk-based food safety legislation.

New food safety legislation that was signed into law in January 2011 strengthens a major part of the food safety system; however, it does not apply to the federal food safety system as a whole or create a new risk-based food safety structure.

GAO recommends that the Director of OMB, in consultation with the federal food safety agencies, develop a governmentwide performance plan for food safety that includes results oriented goals and performance measures for food safety oversight and a discussion about strategies and resources.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, GAO has been making these kinds of recommendations for 20 years.  Does anyone in government listen?  This report notes that the Office of Management and Budget declined to respond to its recommendations.

Responsive government anyone?  This seems like a reorganization well worth trying.  We only have one food supply.  We should not need two agencies to manage its safety risks.

Dec 10 2009

More school lunch meat shockers

That pesky newspaper, USA Today, has done it again.  It’s latest exposé on food safety points out that USDA rules for meat are more stringent for fast food than they are for school lunches and that fast food companies do a much better job of producing safe meat.

The reporters say, for example, that the schools use “old-hen” meat, whereas fast food places do not.  But things are getting better.  The USDA used to buy 30% of all the old-hen meat available, but now only buys 10%.

The article elicited an immediate response from the USDA. An offical wrote USA Today that USDA’s standards for meat sent to schools have been “extremely successful in protecting against food-borne pathogens…inspections and tests of that meat exceed those required for meat sold to the general public.”  That, alas, is not what these articles suggest.

While Congress is dithering over the FDA’s rules for food safety, it ought to be looking at USDA’s also.  At the moment, USDA has better rules than FDA but doesn’t always bother to enforce them.

Congress: get busy!  Better yet, how about considering a complete overhaul and creating ONE food safety agency!

Apr 17 2009

One food safety system: a vision

The New York Times, in an editorial “Food safety, one pistachio at a time,” says “it is time to think seriously about establishing one federal agency to coordinate and enforce food-safety regulations.”  And Michael Taylor and Stephanie David of the George Washington University Department of Health Policy provide a major position paper arguing that food safety must be a joint effort among federal, state, and local health agencies to address risks across “the farm-to-table spectrum of food production, processing, distribution, retailing, and home preparation.”  Let’s hope Congress is listening as it ponders the various bills introduced to fix the FDA or fix the entire food safety system.

Mar 28 2009

Fixing the food safety system: new ideas

The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announce the release of a new report on how to fix the food safety system.  The report, Keeping America’s Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), makes a bunch of suggestions for strengthening the FDA.  The FDA, it says, needs to concentrate resources on the highest risks, enforce existing rules (what a concept), establish a position with authority over all food safety programs in the agency, and work with Congress to establish a Food Safety Administration within HHS.

Wait a minute: I thought two agencies were involved in food safety regulation.  Yes, HHS regulates most foods through the FDA, but the USDA regulates meat and poultry.  These are not two separate food systems. Wastes from food animals (USDA-regulated) contaminate fruits and vegetables (FDA-regulated).

Don’t we need one system?  I think we do.

And buried in the mess of bills submitted to Congress and currently under consideration (handily summarized by Bill Marler), are several aimed at doing just that.  This is a great time to weigh in on them, especially since polls show that nearly 75% of Americans are more afraid of food than they are of terrorists.

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