The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC, released a working paper this month recommending a single food safety agency, better market incentives, and more foodborne illness data and surveillance.

eggs-in-one-basket-350.jpgIn the paper, AEI scholar Sébastien Pouliot acknowledges the difficulty in making major changes to America’s food regulatory system, citing the long and tenuous debate over the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which was enacted early last year.

Pouliot, an economics professor at Iowa State University, notes that instead of recommending “more controversial and perhaps more cost effective” changes — including shifting away from government regulation, toward more market accountability — he specifically focuses on more attainable solutions like reallocating resources and making better use of technology.

The paper’s first recommendation is to consolidate the responsibility for food safety into a single agency to “facilitate communication, harmonize enforcement, and allow for a more efficient allocation of financial resources toward products presenting a higher risk.”

“A single agency may also benefit from economies of scale,” writes Pouliot.

Under his proposal, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and processed egg products, would move from being housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to Department Health and Human Services, the department which currently oversees the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Today, the FDA is charged with overseeing around 80 percent of the food supply — essentially all products that FSIS does not regulate — including a rapidly growing volume of exports.

Why should food safety be under HHS and not USDA, which has more expertise in food production methods? According to Pouliot, “Food producers are [more] likely to capture a food safety agency under the USDA than under [HHS].”

Pouliot also recommends that inspection efforts should be redesigned to be truly risk-based, across all types of food products.

“Under the current system, the FSIS inspects meat and poultry plants continuously and the FDA inspects other processing plants sporadically,” the paper notes. “The difference between the inspection policies is justified by the assumption that meat poses higher food safety risks. However, it is difficult to conceive that the risk differences are sufficiently great to support continuous inspection for one product and inspection once every few years for other products.”

On top of redesigning the regulatory system, Pouliot argues that foodborne illness detection should be more standardized and more data should be collected.

It is widely assumed that many illnesses and outbreaks caused by food go undetected because of gaping holes in the national foodborne illness detection system.

States vary wildly in their ability to detect serious foodborne illnesses and link them to food products or restaurants. The paper calls for a standardized system, across all states and for FoodNet to be expanded beyond the 10 states it operates in today.

 “Combined with better trace back, firms responsible for food safety incidents would become more accountable,” says Pouliot.

The paper’s final recommendation is to give consumers and large food buyers more information about food safety performance.

“Many recalls or failures by firms to pass inspection are not widely publicized. Thus, consumers are often unable to make consumption decision based on a firm’s food safety record,” writes Pouliot. “The recent FSIS initiative to publish Salmonella tests results is a step in the right direction. Local health authorities have undertaken similar initiatives. For example, in Los Angeles County, California, restaurants must display hygiene grade cards that report their performance in the most recent inspection. Mandating publication of food inspection records would increase buyers’ information and increase food suppliers’ incentives to deliver safe food.”

The full AEI paper can be found here.