In 2009 I was asked by the editors of the New York Times to join in a discussion at “Room For Debate” about a single food-safety agency and to post a 300- to 400-word position statement on that issue. After whacking away at it, I finally got it down to size. Now, with renewed discussion about consolidating food-safety regulation, the commentary seems timely again. Here is my original submission:

Perhaps it was Nicholas Kristof who coined it – “Department of Food” in an op-ed column in the New York Times. Certainly, and with some regularity, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have held press conferences touting the miraculous powers of a “Single Food Safety Agency” – combining USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS), which oversees beef, poultry, pork and lamb, with FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), which oversees everything else. I think they split jurisdiction if pepperoni is added to a cheese pizza?

At the mere thought of one department of something, or a single agency of anything, this compulsive trial lawyer begins to fidget with delight. However, as I slowly stop organizing my briefs (no, not those), I also think about the few times that governmental reorganization has consolidated many agencies into one – like Homeland Security. What comes to mind about Homeland Security is “the heck-a-of-a job Brownie” did after FEMA was absorbed, and seeing three-year-olds and grandmas being frisked in airports.

But, I digress. I am not against the idea per se, but the issue of a governmental reorganization may or may not work. Perhaps it is more than “re-arranging the deck chairs on Titanic,” but I am simply not that sure. I worry that reorganization is potentially work without real progress. OK, perhaps it would be more efficient over time, and of course, you would get a new logo on stationery and a new organization acronym.

Perhaps what might make a bit more sense is to put on hold that new stationery, because we are now in the middle of yet another devastating foodborne disease outbreak that has sickened over 600, hospitalized 150 and killed nine. There’s no FDA or CFSAN head, there’s no CDC head, and there’s simply an acting FSIS head. I am presently reminded of the old adage, “if you are in a hole, stop digging.”

The time has come to pay attention and act and not continue simply to react. Consumers, farmers, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, regulators and politicians need to work together to make our food supply safe, profitable and sustainable. When a quarter of our population is sickened yearly by contaminated food, when thousands die, we do not have the “safest food supply in the world.” We should, must and can do better. So, let’s do something and stop talking about governmental reorganization. Here are some ideas:

1. Improve consumer understanding of the risks of foodborne illness, and create a popular campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving — the Citizen Food Coalition, which would use consumer power to promote a no-tolerance policy toward growers and companies that produce tainted food.

2. Proper food safety monitoring begins in the local health professional community. By the time an illness cluster has caught the attention of federal authorities, it’s too late — there’s already a large outbreak. The most important thing we can do to stop large outbreaks at the initial cases is to improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders – ER physicians and local doctors – need to be encouraged to routinely test for pathogens and report findings promptly and directly to local and state health departments at the first sign of questionable symptoms — diarrhea, vomiting, fever.

Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are 20 to 40 times more people who are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped. Local, state and federal health agencies need to work together. Turf battles need to take a back seat to stopping an outbreak and tracking it to its source. That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending producers – not an entire industry – are brought to heel.

3. Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety interventions and employee training and fund university research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination.

4. We need a new emphasis on revamping homeland security, as well as changing the way international terrorism is dealt with. It’s time to start thinking about this issue from a food safety standpoint; imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors – domestically and abroad – and we need to require that they receive training in how to identify and control hazards.

5. We need all food manufacturing plants to have mandatory HACCP, GMPs and SOPs with risk-based inspections, product testing for bacteria and viruses and complete transparency.

6. Lastly, 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. 

  • I agree with all your suggestions and appreciate your comprehensive approach, Mr. Marler. May I add one more thing to #5? All manufacturers should be required to have a QA manager with proper food safety training which should be provided by approved institutions. Restaurants and retailers are required to have certified food safety managers. Even though outbreak continues, I’ve seen little mom/pop operations with great food safety program which would not have been implemented without the awareness and knowledge the owners obtained through food safety training. Manufacturers, on the other hand, can get away with no food safety training at all. Awareness, knowledge and skills should propel the process of positive behavioral changes. Some volunteer to go through training (mainly to obtain 3rd party certs) but manufacturers with no trained personnel should face the consequences described in #6. The incentives described in #3 would be appreciated. (By the way, many states already offer grants to manufacturers that are willing to receive food safety training.)

  • mtnrunner2

    I’m more worried about the threat of governments thinking they have the moral right to tell us what to think and eat, which they don’t.
    Food safety should be handled by private organizations like Consumers Union, and the federal agencies that mandate behavior in advance (as opposed to punishing actual damage) should be disbanded.
    What we need are 1) freedom to eat what we wish and 2) laws that punish those who actually do something wrong, so if people are made sick, those who are responsible are punished in full. Not just given a slap on the wrist and a fat bailout. In other words, similar to what we do with murder.
    More important, governments don’t have the moral right to mandate behavior as it currently does with food safety. Our lives belong to us, not the government.
    And while I’d like taxes to be as low as possible, and basically regard them as theft, we should stop trying to engineer peoples’ behavior with the tax code, and charge a flat tax. Incredible amounts of money are wasted in the US merely trying to comply with tax laws, and it should stop. This would produce a healthier economy (once the tax accountants found other work) and release people to engage in economic action they might not do because of onerous tax laws.

  • doc raymond

    Mtnrunner2, I don’t remember the government ever telling me what to eat.
    Bill, point number 2 might need to be revisited. When I was still practicing medicine, I was probably guilty of not properly diagnosing some foodborne illnesses. But if I had ordered a stool culture on everyone “at the first sign of questionable symptoms—diarrhea, vomiting, fever” I would have driven up the cost of health care exponentially, and in most cases chasing a viral illness, not a true foodborne illness.

  • Scott James

    I agree — we should not allow isolated incidents from highly publicized events scare us into overreacting and forming large government monstrosities. Throwing billions of dollars into a new agency is certainly a poor substitute for grassroots education from food sources all the way to consumer’s tables.
    Furthermore…I live and work as a Food Safety Consultant in Central and South America. Its been difficult explaining to producers in this region why they must follow extremely invasive laws that are about to become even more strict due to FSMA.
    The additional taxes are much better spent educating the food manufacturers and the consumers who have been the primary drivers of innovation and improved safety over the last 40 years — not the government. Consumer choice is by far a more effective accountability mechanism than government bureaucracies and it starts with scientific education programs on Food Safety at all levels from farm to fork.
    Once educated and certified, food manufacturers are far more likely to produce safe, quality products. The FDA and USDA simply cannot be at all places at all times performing all functions; we would literally need an ARMY of inspectors and untold billions in funding.
    Bottom-line: Lets deputize the thousands of food companies and millions of consumers by funding education programs utilizing private inspections allowing the FDA to focus on bad actors and enforcement.

  • Wonderful column and discussion, too. As usual, you have your mix of advocates for business and consumer protection. Doc Raymond brings a great perspective.
    Because it is such a monumental proposition at a time when our government has so many irons in the fire, I’m skeptical about how far this talk of a single agency will go. Also, as an editor, I hate to take sides on any issue, but I think there are a few arguments to be made for one agency.
    There really are about 20 different agencies that regulate or have something to do with the regulation of food or promoting food safety, counting CDC, NOAA and multiple divisions within FDA and USDA. GAO counted 15 in its report a few years ago, but there were a few left off the list. Regardless of how you divide up the work, you still would need a lot of hands on deck and divisions within the agency. But that would be one very high-profile parent agency with a single mission in mind. For better or worse, imagine the power and prestige of a single food safety director.
    But even just counting CFSAN and FSIS, every time we have to debate whether something is an adulterant (one of your favorite topics), decide an agency’s budget, etc., Washington has to do it at least twice, it seems. It’s amazing that we don’t have more inconsistencies.
    Again, not taking sides, but I also hear those who take issue with the USDA’s dual role of having to promote U.S. agriculture and simultaneously make sure our food is safe. I can hear the response now: Promoting food safety promotes U.S. agriculture. Maybe, but I wonder how the argument over allowing poultry to be imported from China would go if it were being handled by an agency that cared only about safety, for example. Where would we be on the catfish inspection rule if we didn’t have to worry about trade with Vietnam or how this impacts our country’s larger seafood industry?
    Of course, the FDA is not immune from political eight-balls. Cough cough … genetically modified salmon … irradiating oysters from the gulf …
    Anyhow, fun conversation. I was drawn in.

  • zoe

    Highly publicized events lead to fear, which leads to the public outcry for more authoritarian control and policing to ensure the safety from perceived or real food borne illness. Personally, I am more and more leaning toward the suspicion that a lot of these media events are designed just to do that- and their latest project is the “food scare”. This will start the gears to get the “one agency” going as the author wrote concerning FEMA, homeland security, et al. I wouldn’t be surprised if ALL agencies wouldn’t blend into one, giant, massive singular (and scary!) agency.