Food Safety News, citing the Hagstrom Report newsletter, said on Jan. 14 that the Obama Administration may be considering a plan to merge the functions of food safety as currently performed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into one large single food safety agency, located within FDA.
The General Accountability Office (GAO) released a 345-page report to Congress in March, 2011, that proposed changes in efficiencies in federal programs that would save us tax payers $200,000,000,000. I will confess I have not and will not read the entire report. My interests are limited to the 4-5 pages in the report on food safety.
In those few pages, the GAO calls for a single food safety agency at the federal level, but the $200 billion in savings is not impacted by this suggestion. Their proposal for a single food safety system is budget neutral.
And herein lies the rub. Meat and poultry plants must have daily, continuous inspection to operate. It is the law. If a single food safety agency combines employees, duties and dollars, FDA can do nothing more than it is currently doing. Nothing will change.
Food Safety News posted an op-ed by me on Monday, Jan. 16, that was in opposition to a single food safety agency. Since I have publicly professed to detest complainers who bring nothing to the table to solve problems, here are my thoughts on what real change could look like and still be budget neutral:
The GAO report cites the massive Iowa-based Salmonella egg recall and outbreak as a perfect example of the fragmented food safety inspection system, and it is a great example.
But it does not take a single food safety system to place all eggs under the USDA. Congress “scrambled” the egg inspection system back in 1970 when it passed the Egg Products Inspection Act that gave egg products to the USDA and shell eggs to the FDA. They can unscramble this situation by putting all eggs under the USDA. Simple move, no mess, and it would address a problem that became elevated in the public’s eye in 2010.
They can also put all animals, including bison, fish and seafood, under the USDA and add all products from animals to the USDA list. That would bring all dairy products, eggs and even casings under USDA/FSIS daily continuous inspection.
Currently casings (animal intestines), all fish except catfish, and bison, unless they pay for FSIS inspection, are under FDA’s regulatory authority. Yes, by law FSIS has catfish but not bison. See, we don’t need a massive single food safety agency to correct these silly deficiencies. We just need some common sense.
Congress could also say that any meat or poultry product that has been inspected at least twice and cooked as a final kill step under FSIS inspection does not need to be inspected again when used to make soup, flavorings, baby food, packaged sandwiches, pizzas etc.
There is currently a system called dual jurisdiction at work in many facilities. Let’s look at pizza as just one example.
A company makes frozen vegetarian pizza and gets no inspection by FDA. Add shrimp and still no inspection. The tomatoes may come from Mexico, the peppers from Chile, the onions from Guatemala and the shrimp from Thailand.
Add a little pepperoni from an American plant, pepperoni with the USDA mark of inspection on it, and you add the need for daily, continuous FSIS inspection — but just for the conveyor belt carrying the pepperoni pizza.
Same goes for canned soup, baby food, etc. It is gross overkill to require inspection for chicken noodle soup but not for tomato soup, and it has nothing to do with protecting the public’s health.
The inspection system is totally arbitrary when it comes to corn dogs and bagel dogs, open-face and closed-face sandwiches. Exactly the same product, just different packaging, resulting in either no inspection or daily inspection.
I don’t know for certain, but I believe that if USDA removed all the inspectors at the dual jurisdiction plants and put them to work on fish and seafood, eggs and dairy products inspection, it would not only make those products safer, but would probably not increase the cost of food safety.
Nearly 80 percent of all the fish and seafood we consume is imported. Almost none is inspected as it arrives in this country, and certainly the number of countries exporting these products is not limited in any way.
If under USDA authority, these countries would first have to have an equivalent food safety system, including daily, continuous federal inspection. Then they would be subjected to annual audits, and the products they export to the U.S. would be re-inspected at an FSIS import house. Just like meat and poultry are today. Food safety would be improved, and the cost is covered by not having vegetable beef soup receive a level of inspection that is simply not needed.
Laws mandating daily, continuous inspection for meat and poultry were passed many decades ago, long before PulseNet (the national surveillance system for foodborne outbreaks) and improved epidemiology revealed that many foodborne illnesses are from produce and other sources, and that meat and poultry are not necessarily the most important carriers of pathogens that can kill us.
We need change, with this I agree, but we do not need change that substantially increases cost and does not increase efficiencies and effectiveness in the federal food safety system.
We should not waste time and effort on a single food safety agency that Congress and many food safety experts simply will not support, but instead we should focus on who should do what and why and, as another Nebraskan is famous for saying, just “git ‘er done.”