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Letter From The Editor: Ramifications

Any time something big happens, there are ramifications.  With the President’s signature this week, the biggest shake up in food safety in 70 years became reality.

But that reality includes the fact that the country’s debt just went over the $14 trillion mark and the trajectory continues skyward.  Food safety will be just so many words on paper without a plan to implement and fund it.

It was no surprise to see another Republican stepping into a new leadership position in the House question the $1.4 billion the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) might need to implement the new law.

A woman I worked for during my public affairs career taught me that you have to stop thinking that you will ever get elected officials all on the same page, but rather that you should deal with them like they are in a parade.   It’s like every time you see one of them, it’s the first time.

So when we hear Jack Kingston, the smooth-talking son of Savannah who will be chairing the House subcommittee charged with FDA’s budget, say 99.99 percent of our food is safe … well, that’s just the way it goes on the parade route.

Any one who wants to see the federal food safety plan implemented from this day forward must accept and even make use of the fact that Kingston is playing his role in the House, just as Tom Coburn did in the Senate.

For example, the food safety bill Coburn offered made much about cooperative planning and the organizational structure of FDA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

That’s why even though Coburn’s ideas are not in the new food safety law, implementing it should include some ideas outside the bill.  One smart thing to do would be to end the dual jurisdiction maze, a suggestion made in Food Safety News this week by Dr. Richard Raymond, who served as USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety during the Bush Administration.

The way jurisdiction between USDA and FDA has evolved is not only confusing, it makes the federal government look silly.  A chicken sandwich with two slices of bread falls under FDA jurisdiction, but FSIS must provide daily inspection for an open-faced chicken sandwich.  

FDA and FSIS should be able to agree on some rational alignment of duties, and then do some trading.   Anything that requires legislative authority could be added to the next Farm Bill.

Raymond recommended that anything needing continuous inspection should stay with FSIS.  He adds all seafood–the last Farm Bill added catfish–so USDA’s responsibilities would include all animals and animals products including eggs, cheese and milk.  FDA would take over everything else, including all those products that have meat or cheese as ingredients.  Those Canadian bacon or pepperoni pizzas and chicken noodle and vegetable beef soups would all fall under FDA jurisdiction.

Raymond argues persuasively that if FSIS has inspected the beef “on the hoof,” why must it be again inspected just because it is being used as an ingredient in a product that is being cooked to a temperature that kills bacteria.

Taking care of dual jurisdiction is politically possible.  A single food safety agency for the U.S. is probably a bridge too far, especially coming anytime soon after the food safety bill that just passed.

But the planning and cooperation Coburn wants to see would be achieved in a big way with a pact to end dual jurisdiction.

Finally, the funding issue is the elephant in this room, just as it is in every room in Washington, D.C.   As a number of experts have now told me, the industry, consumers, and employee unions all oppose going to a privately funded or fee-based food safety inspection program.

The meat industry does not want to have to add those costs to what it charges consumers, even if it would only be a penny or two a pound.

Consumers do not want to pay the bill and union members doing the inspections do not want to feel as if they are working for the business that is paying the costs of inspection.

The food business, depending upon what is included in production and processing, is about a $1 trillion industry.  

It seems like it should be possible to slice off a little of that $1 trillion to fund the inspection scheme, for the sake of consumer confidence if for nothing else.

All the interest groups that supported the food safety bill should be thinking about how food safety is funded.  Somehow it just does not seem right that the cost of inspecting the food we eat today should be paid by our grandchildren when they become taxpayers.   

But that’s just me.

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org hhamil

    Thanks, Dan, for supporting Dr. Raymond’s proposal. I, too, believe it is achievable.
    A key reason that it merits attention at this time is that it will surely save money for everyone involved–regulators, food facilities and consumers.
    The government savings could then be redirected to other areas of food safety, as could that of the food facilities currently subject to dual regulation.
    How could any Washington politician object to that?

  • Roger DeGood

    OH, so now we are to sacrifice safety in the things we eat because of a down economy. The first, and needed change in 70 years. If that is the case, I might as well move to China where they call food safety a “western myth”.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org Harry Hamil

    Thanks, Dan, for supporting Dr. Raymond’s proposal. I, too, believe it is achievable.
    A key reason that it merits attention at this time is that it will surely save money for everyone involved–regulators, food facilities and consumers.
    The government savings could then be redirected to other areas of food safety, as could that of the food facilities currently subject to dual regulation.
    How could any Washington politician object to that?