Top officials of U.S. food safety agencies are not wholeheartedly supportive of a single food safety agency, arguing that collaboration is a higher priority. During the Food Safety Summit in Baltimore on Thursday, leadership from the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) were asked to discuss the idea recently proposed in two congressional bills and the president’s budget request.

From left: Michael Taylor, Joseph Corby, Al Almanza, Chris Braden
“We have never had such a level of collaboration and coordination with USDA as we have today, so we’re focused on carrying out the Food Safety Modernization Act,” said Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at FDA. Al Almanza, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, agreed, adding, “from where I’m standing, as long as we maintain daily inspection and carcass-by-carcass inspection, then whatever they want to talk about is fine by me.” “If we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t design this system organizationally this way,” Taylor said. “We wouldn’t necessarily have it be the same statutorily.” What he and FDA want people to understand is that the agency is “laser-focused on doing the job that we have.” The effort it would take to get to something fundamentally different is “so speculative” that “it’s just not something that we’re focused on,” he added. Joseph Corby, AFDO executive director, said he appreciates the desire for a single agency, but he believes that an integrated food safety system — one where federal, state, territorial, tribal and local agencies work together in developing and implementing inspection and enforcement programs — would have a more direct impact on public health. “To go and try to mess around with the federal government and a single agency would be too disruptive to the efforts that we have invested in to develop an integrated food safety system,” Corby said. Chris Braden, director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said that information and data exchange is a primary goal of any food safety system, and that such an exchange can be a challenge even within an agency and not just between them. “Even if you put agencies together, you can still have some of the same problems as if they were apart,” Braden said, noting the importance of looking at the root causes of these information exchange problems and increasing collaboration. A single food safety agency is not a new idea. Corby said that if he were to meet with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) — sponsor of the House’s Safe Food Act of 2015 — he would remind her of a conversation his organization had with her about 15 years ago. According to Corby, DeLauro admitted at the time that Congress doesn’t really understand how the country’s food safety system works, particularly in terms of what goes on at the state and local level. “When we sat down and talked to her about that – this original vision of an integrated food safety system – it seemed to make more sense to her,” Corby said. “I wonder if she remembers the conversation we had then.” Budget issues aside, he said the conversation about an integrated system needs to be held again so that members of Congress understand how the food safety system works in this country.