by Marion Nestle

Search results: single food agency

Jan 29 2015

A single food agency? Again? Really? Yes!

I don’t generally reproduce press releases but I can hardly improve on this one.  

[WASHINGTON, DC] – U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) today introduced the Safe Food Act of 2015,, which would create a single, independent food safety agency. Currently food safety oversight is split up among 15 different agencies, resulting in a patchwork where no single voice guides industry, retailers and consumers. Durbin and DeLauro introduced similar legislation in 1999, 2004, 2005 and 2007.

Let’s give them credit for persistence in the face of adversity.

The Safe Food Act would:

  • Transfer and consolidate food safety authorities for inspections, enforcement and labeling into a single food safety agency
  • Provide authority to require the recall of unsafe food
  • Require risk assessments and preventive control plans to reduce adulteration
  • Authorize enforcement actions to strengthen contaminant performance standards
  • Improve foreign food import inspections
  • Require full food traceability to better identify sources of outbreaks

The Government Accountability Office has been pressing for a single food agency for decades, mainly because food safety authority is largely split between FDA and USDA in ways that make no sense at all.

It’s terrific that DeLauro and Durbin are taking the matter up again and writing op-eds to encourage support.

They deserve all the support they can get!

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.

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 2 2011

Way to go GAO! A single food safety agency

Thanks to FoodSafetyNews for the heads up on the latest Government Accountability Office(GAO) attempt to get Congress to consolidate federal food safety functions on one agency.

The GAO’s latest 345-page report on how the federal government can save money lists its proposals in alphabetical order by area.  Agriculture comes first and, therefore, so does food safety.  You have to love the way GAO titles its sections: “Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.”

GAO has been saying this for 20 years.  In 1990, for example, it published reports on who does what in the federal government about food safety and the inconsistencies in oversight.

As I wrote in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2010),

Today, an inventory of federal food safety activities reveals a system breathtaking in its irrationality: 35 separate laws administered by 12 agencies housed in six cabinet-level departments….

At best, a structure as fragmented as this one would require extraordinary efforts to achieve communication let alone coordination, and more than 50 interagency agreements govern such efforts.

Among the six agencies with the broadest mandates, all conduct inspections and collect and analyze samples, and at least three–though not necessarily the same ones–have something to do with regulating dairy products, eggs and egg products, fruits and vegetables, grains, and meat and poultry.

Until recently, the system had no mission statement (for whatever such statements are worth) and it still does not have consistent rules, clear lines of authority, a rational allocation of resources, or standards against which to measure success.

With such a system, some issues–such as use of animal manure to fertilize food crops—inevitably fall between the cracks and are governed by no rules whatsoever.

Not much has changed in the subsequent 20 years, as this new report attests.  As is inevitably the case, some of the areas of overlap are simply absurd:

The 2008 Farm Bill assigned USDA responsibility for catfish, thus splitting seafood oversight between USDA and FDA. In September 2009, GAO also identified gaps in food safety agencies’ enforcement and collaboration on imported food.

Specifically, the import screening system used by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not notify FDA’s or FSIS’s systems when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports.

But the worst is the situation with shell eggs, seemingly unfixable, given the 2010 recall of 500 million eggs:

FDA is generally responsible for ensuring that shell eggs, including eggs at farms such as those where the outbreak occurred, are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled and FSIS [USDA] is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products.

In addition, while USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards for the eggs, such as Grade A, it does not test the eggs for microbes such as Salmonella.

Further, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helps ensure the health of the young chicks that are supplied to egg farms, but FDA oversees the safety of the feed they eat.

I repeat.  This is not a new issue.  The hope was that the food safety act passed in January would pave the way to establish a single food safety agency.  The GAO report, while urging its creation, doubts that it will cut costs.

But it might save lives.

Feb 16 2017

Again, after 40 years, GAO still wants a unified food safety system

The congressional watchdog Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just published its latest plea for coordinating federal food safety programs: A National Strategy Is Needed to Address Fragmentation in Federal Oversight.

GAO persists in pointing out that 16 federal agencies administer 30 laws government food safety and quality, although USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (everything else) have the greatest responsibility.

Despite some progress, GAO’s long-standing recommendation for a single, unified food safety agency continues to be ignored.

HHS’s and USDA’s efforts since 2014 are positive steps toward government-wide planning, but OMB has not addressed our recommendation for a government-wide plan for the federal food safety oversight system. Without an annually updated government-wide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals, performance measures, and a discussion of strategies and resources…Congress, program managers, and other decision makers are hampered in their ability to identify agencies and programs addressing similar missions and to set priorities, allocate resources, and restructure federal efforts, as needed, to achieve long-term goals. Also, without such a plan, federal food safety efforts are not clear and transparent to the public.  OMB staff told us that they were not aware of any current plans to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety.

The footnotes list previous GAO reports aimed at rationalizing our food safety system, among them:

  • GAO, High-Risk Series: An Update, GAO-15-290 (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 11, 2015), GAO-15-180.
  • GAO, Federal Food Safety Oversight: Food Safety Working Group Is a Positive First Step but Government-wide Planning Is Needed to Address Fragmentation, GAO-11-289 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 18, 2011)
  • GAO, High-Risk Series: An Update, GAO-07-310 (Washington, D.C.: January 2007)
  • GAO, Food Safety: U.S. Needs a Single Agency to Administer a Unified, Risk-Based Inspection System, T-RCED-99-256 (Washington, D.C.: Aug. 4, 1999).
  • GAO, Food Safety: A Unified, Risk-Based System Needed to Enhance Food Safety, T-RCED-94-71 (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 4, 1993)
  • GAO, Food Safety and Quality: Uniform, Risk-based Inspection System Needed to Ensure Safe Food Supply, RCED-92-152 (Washington, D.C.: June 26, 1992)
  • GAO, Need to Reassess Food Inspection Roles of Federal Organizations, B-168966 (Washington, D.C.: June 30, 1970).

One of these years, maybe?

Sep 28 2016

What does “healthy” mean (on food labels)?

As it promised in response to a petition from the KIND fruit-and-nut bar company (as I discussed in a previous post), the FDA is now asking for public comment on what “healthy” means on food package labels.

You might think that any food minimally processed from the plant, tree, animal, bird, or fish would qualify.

But “healthy” is a marketing term for processed food products (not foods).  

As Politico Morning Agriculture reminds us, things got complicated when KIND, which makes products from whole nuts, said its bars deserved to be called “healthy.”

In 2015, KIND received a warning letter from FDA arguing the company violated federal rules by using “healthy” on its packages. KIND then petitioned the agency, and, after an exchange about why the current definition is outdated, FDA decided to reverse course. For example, it requires that a food be low-fat to be labeled “healthy,” a standard that a nut-based bar doesn’t meet, while products like fat-free puddings do.

The FDA’s rules now say:

The term “healthy” and related terms (“health,” “healthful,” “healthfully,” “healthfulness,” “healthier,” “healthiest,” “healthily” and “healthiness”) may be used if the food meets the following requirements: 21 CFR 101.65(d)(2)

OK.  I know you can’t read this (you can look for it here). The point is that to qualify as “healthy,” a product has to be low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; relatively low in sodium; and contain at least 10% of the Daily Value per serving for vitamins A or C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber (with some exceptions).  There are also rules for levels of nutrients added in fortification.

The FDA wants input on whether all of this makes sense in the light of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and the KIND petition.

In its inimitable FDA-speak:

While FDA is considering how to redefine the term “healthy” as a nutrient content claim, food manufacturers can continue to use the term “healthy” on foods that meet the current regulatory definition. FDA is also issuing a guidance document stating that FDA does not intend to enforce the regulatory requirements for products that use the term if certain criteria described in the guidance document are met.

If I correctly understand the meaning of “does not intend to enforce the regulatory requirements,” the FDA, while waiting for your comments, will allow manufacturers to call products “healthy” as long as the products:

(1) Predominantly contain mono and polyunsaturated fats regardless of total fat content; or

(2) Contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value (DV) per serving of potassium or vitamin D.

In other words, if your food product is made with a low saturated fat oil and contains potassium or vitamin D, it is by definition “healthy.”

Correction, September 29: An FDA official wrote to say that I didn’t quite get this right.  

Actually, if a food exceeds the low fat requirement currently in our definition, we will not take any enforcement or compliance action as long as the food meets all of the other requirements in the definition, namely that it is low in saturated fat, cannot exceed the specified levels of cholesterol and sodium, and contains at least 10 percent of the daily value for beneficial nutrients.  

Second, we are not saying that foods must contain potassium or vitamin D to be labeled as “healthy.”  We are simply indicating that potassium and vitamin D can be substituted for the beneficial nutrients now listed in the current regulations, in line with the new Nutrition Facts label regulations.

My apologies to the FDA for misunderstanding the notice.

The FDA’s request is good news for KIND bars.

But it smacks of “nutritionism”—the use of these two single nutrients (as well as others on the short list of beneficial nutrients) as indicators of quality in processed food products (and don’t get me started on vitamin D, which is a hormone, not a vitamin, and best obtained by getting outside in the sun once in a while).

Understand: this effort is not about semantics; it is about marketing.

Would you like to weigh in on what you think qualifies a food as “healthy?”  Here’s how:

Jul 13 2016

Should FDA be an independent agency?

A couple of weeks ago, Politico reported that six former commissioners of the FDA agreed that this agency needed to become independent of its present location in government.

The FDA is presently one of eight agencies in the Public Health Service of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The former commisioners think the FDA would be better off having

either Cabinet-level powers or the autonomy of agencies like the Federal Trade Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission. They argued that the FDA, which regulates more than a quarter of the economy and deals with critical food and drug safety, is harmed by bureaucracy, meddling politicians and confusing budgetary lines in Congress.

Politico quotes former commissioner David Kessler: “The micromanagement from on top has probably gotten to the point where an independent agency is necessary.”

Every decision made by FDA officials must be cleared not only through the FDA bureaucracy, but also through that of HHS—and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

This explains why the FDA appears to—and does—move at pre-climate change glacial speed.

But that’s not the only structural problem that impedes the work of this agency.  The other big one is how it gets funded.

The FDA is a public health agency housed in the health department.

BUT: it gets its congressional funding from House and Senate Agricultural committees.

These can hardly be expected to be sympathetic to the FDA’s regulatory mission to keep foods safe and labeled accurately.

This happened for reasons of history.  In its earlier incarnations, the FDA was part of the USDA.  It moved, but its funding didn’t.

These calls raise issues about the structure of food regulation at the federal level.  I’ve written about calls for a single food agency often on this site.  This may be a good time to consider how best to deal with food policy in the next few years.  We badly need:

  • Food policy linked to health policy
  • Better linkage of the FDA’s and the USDA’s food safety regulation
  • Better coordination of food and nutrition policy overall

It’s great that the commissioners started this conversation.  It’s one well worth continuing.