U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a conservative Republican from Wyoming, is starting to sound a lot like her colleague Rep. Rose DeLauro, a liberal Democrat from Connecticut — at least when it comes to fixing the nation’s fragmented food safety system.

oneagency-350.jpgCiting a Government Accountability Office report on the issue, Rep. Lummis argued last week that federal food safety responsibilities should be consolidated into one agency, an idea that DeLauro has been pushing for years. The exchange occurred during an agriculture appropriations committee hearing on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fiscal year 2013 budget.

“As you know, I tend to focus on those GAO reports on duplicative programs at the federal government,” Lummis told Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, who testified on behalf of the Federal Food Safety and Inspection Service.

FSIS oversees around 20 percent of the food supply: meat, poultry and processed eggs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for most everything else and there are over a dozen other agencies involved, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has taken a critical role in testing seafood in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the oil spill.

The GAO issued a report last year recommending that Congress create a single food safety agency. 

To illustrate the jurisdictional absurdity between the two primary food safety agencies, Lummis used the oft-cited example of the chicken egg: the FDA is charged with overseeing the safety and labeling of whole shell eggs, while USDA has authority over processed eggs.

“That just sounds so backwards to me,” said Lummis during the hearing. “You’d think that it would be USDA dealing with the whole egg and that it would be FDA that would be dealing with the processed products. I think over time there’s grown to be some sort of bizarre consequences of having an FDA and a USDA food safety division of responsibilities.”

Lummis asked Hagen to outline what progress the two agencies had made over the last year in reducing overlap.

“I agree with you. I think if we started from scratch we might go about things differently,” said Hagen. “Things have gotten more complicated as the years have gone by. But we do have different statutes, we have constraints that come with those statutes, and I think that we’ve done a pretty good job of protecting the American consumer. I’m particularly proud of the work we’ve done at USDA over the last few years to protect American consumers.”

Hagen said there had been increased coordination through the Food Safety Working Group and that USDA has been consulting “a lot” with FDA on implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which falls under the FDA’s jurisdiction, but has direct impact on a variety produce growers.

Lummis further pressed Hagen and asked whether it was simply time to pull food safety out of FDA, away from the agency’s broad range of somewhat unrelated responsibilities, including regulating medical devices, radiological devices, cosmetics and drugs.

“Is it time to divide food safety and put it in USDA?” asked Lummis. “Let the USDA concentrate on food safety. Wouldn’t that make more sense? Congress has done this. It’s not you! You’re just trying to do what the statutes tell you to do. But just in terms of policy, wouldn’t it make more sense?”

Hagen responded diplomatically: “I don’t know whether one system is better than two or better than a few. I do know that the system needs to be accountable to the consumer it’s there to protect, I know that it needs to be more seamless for the industry it regulates.”

At the hearing, Lummis and DeLauro pledged to work together to consolidate food safety responsibilities, though DeLauro noted that her vision is not to move FDA’s responsibilities to USDA, but rather to create a single, independent food safety agency.

  • Minkpuppy

    Lord, save us from the politicians. They’re the least qualified to be in charge of organizing one food safety agency…

  • BB

    Agreed Minkpuppy.

  • I’m with Minkpuppy too! I hope a good one will replace the position at least worthy enough to say that he deserves the position.

  • conflicted

    Dear Ms. Bottemiller,
    Thanks for staying on this story. It may be more appreciated by the readers above if you cover the issue that the USDA has some conflicts of interest. I am not an expert and will stick to the glaringly obvious.
    The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service is responsible to serve producers by assisting ag marketing. AMS is also the office responsible for developing certification programs such as USDA Certified Organic and Certified Grassfed among others.
    The USDA Agricultural Research Service is responsible for development, and delivery, of technology to the private sector. Hence the public pays for what industry wants. In some cases this research does not answer the most important questions for most farmers or for the public.
    The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service has jurisdiction for food inspections. (I am not sure if they are the only USDA Service that does this)
    In lean economic times each are threatened by budget cuts. The ARS must turn to outside grant money to continue projects. Some research looses value if a year of observation is lost. Grant applications include strenuous conflict of interest review, for privately funded research. But private involvement includes the risk that industry gets to write the questions that ARS research will. The ag industry does not always support research that best serves the public and ARS researchers are constricted by funding. (e.g. For industry, research is an investment, and an apple producers organization may not be as interested in nutrition as they are in color or customer appeal)
    A general and most obvious conflict is that the USDA is responsible for marketing AND regulating ag products. The beef, milk and corn lobby are three powerful behemoths. Even with the best intentions, how can a Cabinet member (Sec. of Ag.) choose well on national regulatory issues, when his responsibilities also include promotion of each of these powerful industries. This is a conflict of interest.
    I hope that partially explains Rep. DeLauro’s intention that a new agency be formed. It will separate regulation from research and marketing? I’ll appreciate more expert insight if you can lend some. Thanks.