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Single Food Agency a Recipe for Singular Disaster?

Food Safety News Editor Dan Flynn reported on Jan. 14, 2012 that if Congress gives the Obama Administration the authority to consolidate six agencies that deal with international trade into one agency, bringing together the two major food safety agencies into one would follow.

This possible move is not totally unexpected from this Administration, nor was the way the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) thinking was leaked to The Hagstrom Report by a consumer advocate a surprise. What is a surprise to me is that Food & Water Watch was the only consumer advocacy group quoted in the report, which basically fingers them as the leak.

The consumer advocate is reported to have said that the OMB wants to move the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), currently located in the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the nation’s Mall, north to Maryland to become part of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Most consumer groups will support this move if it develops, although Food & Water Watch said it would  ”urge against consolidating food safety functions” at this time.

A strong proponent of such a move will be Mike Taylor, a former acting Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA and the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA. Mike and I appeared together on many panels debating food safety in 2007-2008 and at every opportunity he advocated for a single food safety agency located “anywhere but at the USDA.” 

Caroline Smith-DeWaal , Director of Food Safety at Center of Science in the Public Interest, also joined us in several panels and is another strong proponent for a single food safety agency. And the list goes on.

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.

If you have not yet clicked on the link provided in the first paragraph, do so now to better understand why I am afraid of this proposal, as is Carol Tucker-Foreman, who responded to the article with an in-depth comment, a spot-on discussion of why this talk is so scary to those who know the players. 

FSIS regulates by inspection and enforcement. Their daily presence in nearly every single meat and poultry plant in this country is mandated by law and funded by Congress. They can shutter a plant simply by having the inspectors not show up for work.

FDA regulates by education and writing Good Manufacturing Practices and suggesting policies to follow when producing food. Foods like sprouts, cantaloupe, peanut butter and shell eggs come to mind. And FDA inspection is either by a state entity, a third-party auditor paid by the company or themselves when an outbreak is recognized.

The FDA has no mandate in inspection or audit frequency, and very little in funding to do so. And therefore they very rarely inspect or audit unless a disaster mandates it.

This is not to say one agency is better than the other. They are very different entities, and the laws that they follow are very different also. To blend them into one might be like mixing oil and water.

And that brings me to personalities. There has been some obvious tension and conflict between the two agencies and some of their leaders for decades. Those feelings will not disappear with a Presidential mandate.

 

A very simple example of this is the dual jurisdiction plants. It should be simple to decide if all pizza should be inspected daily, if no pizza needs inspection, or if we should just inspect pizza with meat on it. The same could be said for soups and baby foods. But alas, it is not simple. And a single food safety agency will not change the laws that allow this ridiculous situation to continue. 

It is often said by those wanting a single food safety agency that there are anywhere from 12-17 agencies involved in food safety. But in reality, 99.9 percent of what we eat is regulated by either FSIS or FDA.

Unless you count alcohol as one of your six basic food types, I do not know why the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms keeps showing up on these lists. Or the EPA, which does have the ability to shut down Gulf Coast commercial fishing when there is an oil spill, but most of our fish comes from overseas anyway. 

The story in Food Safety News mentioned that Obama’s plan includes moving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, from the Commerce Department to Interior and bringing “all salmon regulation into one agency.”

I think NOAA just has marine authority for fishing regulations, certainly not commercial salmon farming, or fresh water salmon fishing. And it gets even more convoluted when Congress, in the 2008 Farm Bill, mandated that catfish inspection move from FDA to FSIS, but left all other fish and seafood at FDA.

The Food Safety New story also said that “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.”

There are seven Mission Areas within the USDA. The five Undersecretaries for Food Safety; Food Nutrition and Consumer Services; Rural Development; Natural Resources and Environment;  and Research, Education and Economic will tell you they do not “primarily exist to market and promote American farm products.”

One might argue, based on prior observations, that the Food and Drug Administration primarily exists to regulate medicines and medical devices.

Single Food Safety Agency. Sounds good, but guess what? We had a single food safety agency from 1906, when the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Acts were passed. USDA had all the authority for food safety. 

The FDA was transferred out of the USDA in 1940. A single food safety agency must not have been perceived to be working out too well back then.

 

Some would say mega-bureaucracies lose the nimbleness necessary to respond to outbreaks and other emergencies. Agencies like the Department of Homeland Security come to mind.

Maybe the scariest thing about this whole idea of a single food safety agency, located at FDA is that Carol Tucker-Foreman and I agree that it is a bad idea. We don’t agree on too much, so when we do, it must be a really good idea (non-O157 STECs as adulterants in beef, for example) or a really bad idea (single food safety agency at FDA).

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© Food Safety News
  • doc raymond

    Tony Corbo, long time food safety monitor at Food And Water Watch has informed me that his organization was not the leak. Sorry F & WW for misleading the readers. So, Tony, who did leak the info?

  • http://www.fastrecipes.com easy recipes teacher

    Shouldn’t such a move be a long-term process rather than an event that takes place over a short period? Moving offices, locations, etc. sound like an accomplishment, but it takes time for two companies to work things out and make the transition smoother. Perhaps it is wiser to do this in small steps.