I am betting your response to the headline was the same as when I read the news: HUH? The proposed Farm Bill has finally gathered the bicameral and bipartisan support of a conference committee. Food Safety News recently reported that the Farm Bill would require that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must “enter into a memorandum of understanding to improve interagency cooperation and prevent duplicative inspection oversight by ensuring that inspections of dual jurisdiction facilities by the FSIS satisfy the requirements of the FDA.” First, a couple of explanations so we are all on the same page.

  1. Dual jurisdiction plants are those that fall under both FDA and USDA/FSIS regulatory authorities.
  2. FSIS regulates the slaughter and further processing of meat, poultry and egg products and does this by daily, continuous inspection of these establishments as dictated by various statutes passed over the years.
  3. FDA basically is responsible for almost everything else, including seafood, fish, dairy, shell eggs and produce. They rarely inspect a plant and may audit every five to 10 years or so.
  4. There are two glaring exceptions to No. 2 and No. 3 that were created by Congress, not by the agencies. FSIS has catfish inspection but no other seafood or fish. FDA has authority for bison but no other four-legged animals. (In fairness to the bison industry, and so Dave Carter does not call me, bison producers can ask for federal inspection, but they have to pay for it.)

What happens in the dual jurisdiction plants is that some products are produced that contain meat and some do not. The ones with a minimum amount of meat get daily continuous FSIS inspection; those with no meat might be the subject of an every 10 year or so audit. Vegetarian pizza vs. pepperoni pizza Pea Soup vs. Chicken Noodle Soup Gerber carrot baby food vs. Gerber beef baby food But it is not that simple. Bagel Dogs vs. Corn Dogs Closed face, ready-to-eat turkey sandwich vs. open-faced turkey sandwich Same exact product and risk, yet one gets daily continuous inspection and the other gets none. And Congress wants a memorandum of understanding to prevent duplicative inspection oversight? It is not duplicative; it is almost all FSIS. You are not going to see FSIS and FDA inspectors hanging around together in these establishments. And Congress wants to be assured that inspection in dual jurisdiction facilities by FSIS meets the requirements of FDA? What FDA requirements, Congress? Maybe the one that is in the Food Safety Modernization Act and says FDA oversight must be risk-based? Well, Congress, if that is the FDA requirement you are thinking that FSIS must meet, then you must change a law you passed in 2008 that said FSIS could not spend one more tax dollar developing a risk-based inspection system. As U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-OK) said in 2011 regarding the dual jurisdiction issue, “First of all, it is stupid. Second of all, it is inefficient.” He was right. So why won’t Congress fix it? Three reasons:

  1. The consumer and food safety advocates want FDA products in dual jurisdiction plants to get daily inspection also.
  2. The meat and poultry industry wants to be exempted from daily inspection for things like soup, sandwiches and pizzas containing meat.
  3. The bargaining unit wants nothing that would decrease their numbers.

FDA and FSIS held a joint public conference in Chicago on this issue on Dec. 15, 2005. Bob Brackett and I co-chaired it. In my naiveté, I thought this would be an easy fix. The conference showed me how polarized this issue is. Hence, Congress is not going to wade into this food fight but instead is telling the two agencies to play nicely together and take their lumps as they most surely will come from all sides. If I were king for a day and wanted to get rid of this embarrassing inspection situation, here is what I would do. First of all, give FSIS all animals, including fish, seafood, eggs, and, yes, bison. And give them all animal products such as milk and cheese. Give FDA all products that contain meat or poultry that has already been inspected in the pens, in the slaughter plants and in the further processing plants. After all, you can only inspect chicken meat so many times before you have to say “good to go out the door.” Adding chicken meat to a pizza crust that contains tomatoes from Mexico, spinach from California, onions from Guatemala and cheese from Wisconsin does not immediately turn that pizza into a killer dish. I think this would be near budget-neutral, cost no bargaining unit jobs, and make our food safer. At the very least, it would make the system look less “stupid” and be more “efficient.” Last shot and I am out of here. Farm Bill 2008 is the statute that actually moved catfish to FSIS with the help of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). Six years later, and they are still not inspected. Seems the rule-makers are hung up over the definition of catfish. I would not hold your breath waiting for the mandated memorandum of understanding.