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OMB Says Food Agency Merger Is Next

A single federal food safety agency, long sought by many advocates, will happen if Congress grants the Obama Administration authority to reorganize the government, according to the subscription news service The Hagstrom Report.

In its Friday edition, The Hagstrom Report said Office of Management and Budget Director for Management, Jeff Zients, said that if Congress grants Obama the power to consolidate federal agencies, the first proposal will be to merge the six business-oriented agencies, folding together the Commerce Department’s core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

Zients added that a follow-up proposal would be to consolidate USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) with the food safety unit at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

A consumer advocate tipped off Hagstrom that Obama Administration officials want to merge FSIS with the food regulatory function of FDA, which is part of Health and Human Service Department (HHS).

Obama administration officials are said to favor the merger because it would make food safety independent of USDA, which primarily exists to market and promote American farm products.

Presidents from Herbert Hoover through Ronald Reagan had the power to organize the executive branch of  government, subject only to Congressional veto. However, Congress took those organizational powers away during the Reagan Administration. In his last State of the State address, Obama asked to have the authority restored to the Oval Office, and this week renewed that call.

He has cited the trade and business consolidations as needed jobs measures.

Jerry Hagstrom pointed out that more than two federal agencies are involved in food safety.  ”FSIS, whose inspectors must be present in every meat plant in the country, has a much bigger budget than FDA, which has responsibility for other foods. Twelve agencies are involved in food safety,” Hagstrom reported.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has called for consolidation of all food-safety functions into a single agency, an end to fragmented oversight supported by most, but not all, outside food-safety advocates.

In renewing his call for Presidential consolidation authority on Friday, Obama said his plan to merge six business and trade agencies is just the “first action” he has in mind.

It apparently includes moving the National Oceanic and Fisheries Administration (NOAA) from the Commerce Department to Interior. Obama said that would bring all salmon regulation into one agency.

Late Friday, Food & Water Watch came out against that move.

“We are deeply concerned about President Obama’s proposal to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the Department of the Interior, the same Department that brought us BP’s Deepwater Horizon,” said F&WW executive director Wenonah Hauter.

“While the mission of NOAA is not consistent with the mission of the Department of Commerce where it currently resides, moving it to the Department of Interior will fail to eliminate any conflicts arising from dueling mandates,” she said. “This plan to slash the government fails to eliminate these conflicts and will do nothing to promote a better functioning executive branch.”

She also said the Washington D.C.-based environmental group “strongly urges against consolidating food safety functions of different government departments until much more progress is made to improve basic food safety protections.”

Other food safety groups, however, may see “consolidation powers” for Obama as a rare opportunity to achieve a long elusive goal.

© Food Safety News
  • Keija

    Has anybody read this shattering whistleblowing book ” U.N. a cosa NOstra” about the waste and inefficiency at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to which the US pays substantial money out of the tax pot or 20% of its budget ?

  • mcox

    First, it’s not “Hubert” Hoover.
    Second, Congress is most unlikely to grant the Obama administration the right to reorganize the government when they have proved unwilling to cooperate on much less weighty issues.

  • danflynn

    Yes, it is “Herbert” Hoover and we’ve corrected it.

  • doc raymond

    Hubert/Herbert. That is not the point here, not even close. The point is the most radical change in food safety since 1906 if the President is allowed to consolidate. And yes, there may be 12 agencies involved in food safety, but 99.9% of what you and I eat is regulated by FSIS and FDA. EPA may have something to do with fish from the gulf when it is contaminated, and NOAA may have a say in Salmon, but unless you consider alcohol one of the six basic food groups, you cannot count Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms as a food regulator. FSIS does a far better job of guaranteeing the meat and poultry we eat is safe than FDA does in guaranteeing the lettuce, spinach, peanut butter, cantaloupe and shell eggs we eat are safe. Moving FSIS to FDA does nothing but share their budget with FDA, thus decreasing the ability to regulate meat and poultry. My suggestion for a true reorganization that will improve food safety without adding to the federal deficit will follow next week.

  • cf

    Bigger is better?
    History has shown this does not usually show an improvement.
    Checks and balances?
    And the last sentence.
    We should be very, very concerned.

  • http://www.consumerfed.org ctuckerforman

    I congratulate Food Safety News on its effort to respond quickly to the President’s announcement that he would seek to renew the expired executive reorganization authority and to the speculation that the Administration intends to propose moving federal food safety functions to the FDA. However, the resulting article did not report accurately on the position taken by groups representing consumers and victims of foodborne illness.
    For over a decade, we have sought a single, independent food safety agency, as proposed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Dick Durbin because it would provide focus, resources and high visibility to the need to improve public health by assuring safer food. Moving meat and poultry inspection to FDA would not achieve those goals. In fact, it 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 by GAO, the Department of HHS Inspector General and us for its inability to provide a decent level of food safety protection in the domestic and imported food products it regulates. Over the past ten years, major foodborne illness outbreaks caused by FDA-regulated foods have caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of illnesses. We worked to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act which addresses some, but not all, of the weaknesses in the FDA program and resources, and does nothing to remedy the problems created by being a subunit of a second level agency in the massive bureaucracy that is the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency is currently in the throes of trying to implement the new law. Adding the new burden of integrating other agencies would most likely diminish the effectiveness of that effort as well as the administration of other food safety programs.
    During the period in which FDA’s food safety efforts reached an historical nadir, the E.coli O157:H7 outbreaks of the early 1990s led to major beneficial changes in USDA’s meat and poultry inspection program. First, the department mandated that all meat and poultry plants institute HACCP systems and established performance standards for many products. Second, the department declared E.coli O157:H7 an adulterant in ground meat products and began testing to assure efforts to control the presence of the pathogen were effective. Third, the Congress passed the USDA Reorganization Act that imposed basic changes on the very concept of food safety at USDA. The law created the Office of Food Safety led by what is now the highest ranking food safety official in the U.S. government, the Under Secretary for Food Safety, and created a wall between USDAs food safety functions and its responsibilities for supporting the production and promotion of food and agricultural products. As a result of these changes, foodborne illnesses traced to meat and poultry products have declined.
    Today the FSIS has surpassed the FDA in some areas. The agency has adequate resources and high official status in a relatively small Cabinet agency. It is rendered less effective than it might be by the failure of both the Administration and the Congress to propose substantive changes that would modernize the statutes it administers.
    FDA, despite its new law, is still strapped for funds, burdened by its low position at HHS and the need to manage multiple agendas. Food safety has traditionally been a poor stepchild at FDA, with far more attention and funding going to regulation of drugs and devices. Recently the agency has taken on regulation of tobacco, a daunting task. Reorganization would not address the continuing problems of either agency.
    The most important reason not to move meat and poultry inspection to the FDA is that it would almost surely result in diminished public health protection. Even though outdated, in many ways the current meat and poultry inspection acts provide a far greater degree of public health protection than the laws governing FDA-regulated foods. No meat or poultry products can enter the U.S. until FSIS has determined the exporting country meets our safety standards. All products are subject to inspection at port of entry. As the world trading system developed, FDA was persuaded by the companies it regulates to stand aside and let food products enter the U.S. without any meaningful safety checks. There was no requirement that countries meet our standards before shipping their products here. Only a tiny percentage of imported products were examined at ports of entry. One weakness of the new Food Safety Modernization Act is that it still does not require exporting countries to demonstrate in advance that it meets U.S. standards.
    The meat and poultry inspection laws also provide a greater level of official oversight to meat and poultry products produced domestically. In addition to HACCP requirements, every meat and poultry plant is visited at least once a day by a federal inspector, sworn to uphold the law and protect the public. In the high risk area of animal slaughter every animal must be checked to assure it is free of fecal contamination and disease. The FDA does not have either the resources or the inclination to inspect food plants often. Under the new law the agency is required to visit the highest risk plants only once in the next five years. Further, the FDA plans to turn over inspection functions to state and local governments despite the fact that the HHS Inspector General recently reiterated its criticisms of the level of protection provided by this practice. It appears that the FDA continues to harbor the hope that it can turn to private third party auditors to do its inspection work. Let’s be clear about what that means. Private companies will pay private auditors to enter their plants and determine whether what the company retaining them is doing meets FDA standards and protects the public. Inspectors paid by state governments and auditors paid by the companies they audit were directly involved in some of the worse foodborne illness outbreaks caused by FDA-regulated foods. Third party auditors and Georgia state inspectors working under contract to the FDA ignored the conditions at the Peanut Corporation of America that led to the salmonellosis outbreak of 2008 and 2009 in which a product previously considered “low risk” made over 700 Americans sick. Third party auditors were implicated as well in the 25 deaths caused by Listeria contaminated cantaloupes produced by Jensen Farms of Colorado a few months ago.
    While moving FSIS programs to FDA won’t change the laws governing the program, it is naïve to expect that the culture of the dominant agency won’t ultimately become the culture of the whole.
    The notion of reorganizing food safety the cheap and easy way—by moving other agencies to FDA is likely to cost far more and be much harder to accomplish than glib references to possible benefits. Many of the agencies described as “food safety” agencies are in fact primarily concerned with other agendas, including marketing and animal health. The GAO often mentions USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service as a food safety agency. There is nothing in the laws administered by the agency charging it with protecting public health. In congressional testimony the last two leaders of AMS have stated flatly that it is not a food safety agency. It will be interesting to see how the Obama Administration might approach converting an agency specifically devoted to marketing into one devoted primarily to protecting human health. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Agency is charged with the roles its name describes. It cares about human safety only as an adjunct to a disease that may kill plants or animals. The Environmental Protection Agency, a Cabinet level agency, has food safety responsibilities but is primarily concerned with protecting the environment. It is hard to see how the Administration might break food safety functions out of EPA and even harder to see how FDA could manage them. It is unlikely to be included in any reorganization.
    Finally, last year the GAO published a major report on savings that might be accrued through government reorganization. It specifically stated that it was unlikely that reorganizing food safety agencies would lead to meaningful financial savings. Consumer Federation of America agrees with GAO on that. 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 and retard FDA’s implementation of its new law, leading to a potential increase in foodborne illness and the related costs. That makes it bad policy and a bad bargain.
    Carol L. Tucker-Foreman
    Distinguished Fellow, Food POlicy
    Consumer Federation of America

  • Dan Flynn

    Yes, it is “Herbert” Hoover and we’ve corrected it.

  • http://www.johnmunsell.com jmunsell

    I agree that FDA should NOT be given responsibility for regulating meat, poultry & egg plants currently covered by FSIS. FDA has neither the interest or experience required for such inspection. FDA is perfectly satisfied visiting establishments once every 5-10 years, which won’t fly at slaughter establishments. I do believe FSIS needs to be removed from USDA, and inspection away from FSIS as well, which suffers from excessive influence from powerful industry influences. Can the eventual authority be staffed by strong individuals willing to stand up against industry powers?
    Am looking forward to Dr. Raymond’s suggestions next week, which hopefully will address my questions as well.
    John Munsell

  • http://www.consumerfed.org Carol Tucker-Foreman

    I congratulate Food Safety News on its effort to respond quickly to the President’s announcement that he would seek to renew the expired executive reorganization authority and to the speculation that the Administration intends to propose moving federal food safety functions to the FDA. However, the resulting article did not report accurately on the position taken by groups representing consumers and victims of foodborne illness.
    For over a decade, we have sought a single, independent food safety agency, as proposed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Dick Durbin because it would provide focus, resources and high visibility to the need to improve public health by assuring safer food. Moving meat and poultry inspection to FDA would not achieve those goals. In fact, it 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 by GAO, the Department of HHS Inspector General and us for its inability to provide a decent level of food safety protection in the domestic and imported food products it regulates. Over the past ten years, major foodborne illness outbreaks caused by FDA-regulated foods have caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of illnesses. We worked to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act which addresses some, but not all, of the weaknesses in the FDA program and resources, and does nothing to remedy the problems created by being a subunit of a second level agency in the massive bureaucracy that is the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency is currently in the throes of trying to implement the new law. Adding the new burden of integrating other agencies would most likely diminish the effectiveness of that effort as well as the administration of other food safety programs.
    During the period in which FDA’s food safety efforts reached an historical nadir, the E.coli O157:H7 outbreaks of the early 1990s led to major beneficial changes in USDA’s meat and poultry inspection program. First, the department mandated that all meat and poultry plants institute HACCP systems and established performance standards for many products. Second, the department declared E.coli O157:H7 an adulterant in ground meat products and began testing to assure efforts to control the presence of the pathogen were effective. Third, the Congress passed the USDA Reorganization Act that imposed basic changes on the very concept of food safety at USDA. The law created the Office of Food Safety led by what is now the highest ranking food safety official in the U.S. government, the Under Secretary for Food Safety, and created a wall between USDAs food safety functions and its responsibilities for supporting the production and promotion of food and agricultural products. As a result of these changes, foodborne illnesses traced to meat and poultry products have declined.
    Today the FSIS has surpassed the FDA in some areas. The agency has adequate resources and high official status in a relatively small Cabinet agency. It is rendered less effective than it might be by the failure of both the Administration and the Congress to propose substantive changes that would modernize the statutes it administers.
    FDA, despite its new law, is still strapped for funds, burdened by its low position at HHS and the need to manage multiple agendas. Food safety has traditionally been a poor stepchild at FDA, with far more attention and funding going to regulation of drugs and devices. Recently the agency has taken on regulation of tobacco, a daunting task. Reorganization would not address the continuing problems of either agency.
    The most important reason not to move meat and poultry inspection to the FDA is that it would almost surely result in diminished public health protection. Even though outdated, in many ways the current meat and poultry inspection acts provide a far greater degree of public health protection than the laws governing FDA-regulated foods. No meat or poultry products can enter the U.S. until FSIS has determined the exporting country meets our safety standards. All products are subject to inspection at port of entry. As the world trading system developed, FDA was persuaded by the companies it regulates to stand aside and let food products enter the U.S. without any meaningful safety checks. There was no requirement that countries meet our standards before shipping their products here. Only a tiny percentage of imported products were examined at ports of entry. One weakness of the new Food Safety Modernization Act is that it still does not require exporting countries to demonstrate in advance that it meets U.S. standards.
    The meat and poultry inspection laws also provide a greater level of official oversight to meat and poultry products produced domestically. In addition to HACCP requirements, every meat and poultry plant is visited at least once a day by a federal inspector, sworn to uphold the law and protect the public. In the high risk area of animal slaughter every animal must be checked to assure it is free of fecal contamination and disease. The FDA does not have either the resources or the inclination to inspect food plants often. Under the new law the agency is required to visit the highest risk plants only once in the next five years. Further, the FDA plans to turn over inspection functions to state and local governments despite the fact that the HHS Inspector General recently reiterated its criticisms of the level of protection provided by this practice. It appears that the FDA continues to harbor the hope that it can turn to private third party auditors to do its inspection work. Let’s be clear about what that means. Private companies will pay private auditors to enter their plants and determine whether what the company retaining them is doing meets FDA standards and protects the public. Inspectors paid by state governments and auditors paid by the companies they audit were directly involved in some of the worse foodborne illness outbreaks caused by FDA-regulated foods. Third party auditors and Georgia state inspectors working under contract to the FDA ignored the conditions at the Peanut Corporation of America that led to the salmonellosis outbreak of 2008 and 2009 in which a product previously considered “low risk” made over 700 Americans sick. Third party auditors were implicated as well in the 25 deaths caused by Listeria contaminated cantaloupes produced by Jensen Farms of Colorado a few months ago.
    While moving FSIS programs to FDA won’t change the laws governing the program, it is naïve to expect that the culture of the dominant agency won’t ultimately become the culture of the whole.
    The notion of reorganizing food safety the cheap and easy way—by moving other agencies to FDA is likely to cost far more and be much harder to accomplish than glib references to possible benefits. Many of the agencies described as “food safety” agencies are in fact primarily concerned with other agendas, including marketing and animal health. The GAO often mentions USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service as a food safety agency. There is nothing in the laws administered by the agency charging it with protecting public health. In congressional testimony the last two leaders of AMS have stated flatly that it is not a food safety agency. It will be interesting to see how the Obama Administration might approach converting an agency specifically devoted to marketing into one devoted primarily to protecting human health. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Agency is charged with the roles its name describes. It cares about human safety only as an adjunct to a disease that may kill plants or animals. The Environmental Protection Agency, a Cabinet level agency, has food safety responsibilities but is primarily concerned with protecting the environment. It is hard to see how the Administration might break food safety functions out of EPA and even harder to see how FDA could manage them. It is unlikely to be included in any reorganization.
    Finally, last year the GAO published a major report on savings that might be accrued through government reorganization. It specifically stated that it was unlikely that reorganizing food safety agencies would lead to meaningful financial savings. Consumer Federation of America agrees with GAO on that. 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 and retard FDA’s implementation of its new law, leading to a potential increase in foodborne illness and the related costs. That makes it bad policy and a bad bargain.
    Carol L. Tucker-Foreman
    Distinguished Fellow, Food POlicy
    Consumer Federation of America

  • http://www.johnmunsell.com John Munsell

    I agree that FDA should NOT be given responsibility for regulating meat, poultry & egg plants currently covered by FSIS. FDA has neither the interest or experience required for such inspection. FDA is perfectly satisfied visiting establishments once every 5-10 years, which won’t fly at slaughter establishments. I do believe FSIS needs to be removed from USDA, and inspection away from FSIS as well, which suffers from excessive influence from powerful industry influences. Can the eventual authority be staffed by strong individuals willing to stand up against industry powers?
    Am looking forward to Dr. Raymond’s suggestions next week, which hopefully will address my questions as well.
    John Munsell

  • BB

    Sounds like we need to move the “Food” portion of the FDA to FSIS, increase the budget and have daily inspections in every plant. I know it’s not practical, but I agree that moving FSIS to FDA would hinder progress.
    Mr. Munsell….even if FSIS were removed from USDA, the powerfull influence of the corportations will follow FSIS wherever they go. That problem exists everywhere in the federal government. It’s the fox gaurding the hen house and I would be surprised if that ever changed.

  • Jake

    At a minimum FSIS should relinquish authority post-slaughter. That would eliminate such situations like cheese pizza being regulated by FDA but pepperoni pizza regulated by USDA; clam chowder being regulated by FDA but chicken chowder regulated by USDA. Do we really need continuous USDA inspection at taxpayer expense for foods made with meat or poultry that has already been inspected by USDA?

  • Minkpuppy

    I agree with BB that removing FSIS from USDA will do nothing to diminish the industry influence on the Agency. In the end, whatever agency FSIS becomes will still have to deal with the big packers and their influence over Congress. The packers will still be there even if FSIS goes away.
    I recall from my college days that concerns about a big packer monopoly and its influence were raised as far back as the late 80′s/early 90′s. The industry has only become more concentrated and more powerful since then. The locavore movement is a bit late to the party in that sense. IMO, if demand for change had happened 20 years ago, we’d be discussing a whole different set of issues today.
    Moving FSIS to FDA authority will weaken meat inspection, not improve it. As Doc Raymond points out, the cultures of the 2 agencies are drastically different and all it will do is spread the FSIS budget over two agencies instead of one. FDA is already drastically underfunded for food inspection.
    I agree with Jake that we can relinquish some authority over the ready-to-eat, processed foods like pizza. These foods can’t be made unless the meat is USDA inspected. It’s redundant. However, I do think that these products need to be inspected more frequently than once every 5-10 years. (When the cat is away, the mice will play!) FSIS is already moving toward risk-based inspection of these products and we should continue along that path. The plants with the least amount of risk will have fewer inspections but hopefully more often than once a year or less.
    There’s no easy fix to this mess. All angles need to be studied thoroughly to determine where the redundancies really exist and which inspection authorities can be transferred to another agency without mucking it up even more. This needs to be a slow process, not a hasty decision made to appease a Congress that realistically doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about its constituents.

  • Dog Doctor

    I have worked for FDA, FSIS, and APHIS and worked extensively with CDC, local and state health departments. Having worked for these agencies, they do a very job doing their jobs but each agency has a very different mission and organizational culture.
    FDA does not maintain a present at each food facility that produces food under its jurisdiction and inspects these facilities at random times and it contracts with local and state departments to do additional inspection. This isn’t a great analogy but for most non FDA folks it will communicate the general idea, FDA inspectors are similar to state troopers running radar guns to catch speeders and investigating accidents. The speeders that are caught are those food facilities that are inspected and problems are found and the wrecks are those facilities that cause outbreaks or other violations that get public attention i.e. the tuna company that had cat food labels under their label on the can. Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, FDA has to prove that a food is unfit before it can take action.
    USDA FSIS maintains a presence in each facility where animals are harvested and regular daily inspection in plants that procure meat and poultry products. To be considered wholesome, products that FSIS regulates have to be inspected and receive an inspection stamp which is a stricter standard than FDA’s requirements. Until the mid 1980’s, in many meat and poultry plants FSIS was the functional quality control system for the industry, towards the end of 80’s FSIS started to require a functional QC department for all plants, yes many plants had QC departments but many QC managers had production quotas and bonuses which encouraged them to see things in a greyer fashion than strict black and white but they have improved over my career where in most cases they are now functional and operational QC programs. So what is the impact of all these issues 1) FSIS inspection staff have a better relationship than FDA since they are there daily 2) FSIS knows how much of variation one day is from a string of 30 days. The issue with FDA is if you are having a bad day or are running in the grey zone when the inspector arrives the assumption is that you always run like that which is why FDA comes down like a ton of bricks as opposed to FSIS which is more aware of daily variation. Does this mean FSIS isn’t doing its job – NO. Both agencies contribute to the safety of the American Food Supply having been in both agencies there is no food that is more dangerous because of its inspection than another. FSIS also wants issues worked at the lowest possible level while FDA tends to evaluate issues to highest level.
    Therefore, both agencies have evolved with the industries they regulate and have evolved into very different creatures so blindly merging these two agencies would be an absolute disaster because of the inspectional and cultural clashes that would occur.
    If you want a single food safety agency, you to develop a 10 year merge plan with training for all employees in the new inspection system.
    In addition to FDA and FSIS, you will need to address the interaction with EPA which regulate chemical used in agriculture from cleaners to pesticides and allowable residues. You also have to determine how Local, State, and Tribal Health, Agriculture, and Food Agencies will integrate into this new super agency which various Federal agencies contract with for various activities from inspection to testing of samples at retail. Integrating Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the development of an active surveillance system for food borne illness will be a challenge. APHIS to deal with pre harvest health events of animals that will become food or produce food products. NOAA seafood inspection program need to be integrated in some fashion as does AMS grading for everything from meat, poultry, eggs, to produce and grain.
    Above all the Political appointees that run these agencies will have to demonstrate a level of leadership, maturity, and a willingness to work for the common good that hasn’t been seen in the last several administrations. I had the misfortune of having to work agency EOC’s during several critical events during those administrations, and after I retire I will tell those stories but neither party is guilt free nor have they appointed anyone that is ready to handle the transition in a manner that will not jeopardize the food safety system. We need a group of leaders that learned to share and play nice in the sand box and not the ones that had to have all the toys.
    In conclusion, the US is not ready for the single food safety agency nor is likely to be ready in the near future. On the bright side recognizing these issues, most agencies are learning to work better together and become more efficient to deal with the budget cutbacks and, if nothing else they are united by a perceived common enemy in the form of The Department of Homeland security.