President Donald J. Trump wants to consolidate federal food safety under a single agency housed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
President Barack Obama also wanted to consolidate food safety, only he preferred housing it in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under the Food and Drug Administration.
Obama failed because Congress would not extend him the power to reorganize government. Trump is picking up where Obama left off on that one, seeking executive reorganization authority under his “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century” project.
Food safety is but one of many federal government functions that Trump wants to reorganize. His reorganization project’s report says federal food safety efforts are currently marked by “inconsistent oversight, infective coordination and inefficient use of resources.”
The Government Accountablity Office (GAO) of Congress has also issued numerous reports, going back years, all calling for a single federal food safety agency and listing numerous criticisms of the existing system.
The FDA along with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are the two top federal food safety agencies now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assists with foodborne outbreak investigations, but does not have responsibility for food safety rules or enforcement of them.
“There are many examples of how illogical our fragmented and sometimes duplicative food safety system can be,” says the Trump Administration report issued Thursday.
“For example: while FSIS has regulatory responsibility for the safety of liquid eggs, FDA has regulatory responsibility for the safety of eggs while they are inside their shells; FDA regulates cheese pizza; but if there is pepperoni on top, it falls under the jurisdiction of FSIS; FDA regulates closed-faced meat sandwiches, while FSIS regulates open-faced meat sandwiches.”
Trump’s executive budget office says consolidation is the answer.
“To address this fragmented and illogical division of federal oversight, FSIS and the food safety functions of FDA would be consolidated into a single agency within USDA called the Federal Food Safety Agency,” according to Trump’s Office of Executive Management and Budget (OMB).
The new USDA food safety unit would pick up about 14,200 employees with the annual budget authority of about $2.3 billion by combining existing FSIS and FDA food safety workforces and budgets. Currently, FSIS employes about 9,200 with a $1 billion budget. The FDA’s food safety work involves about 5,000 employees and budgets totaling about $1.3 billion.
Others who’ve called for a single food safety agency, according to the report, include the National Research Council and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The outside groups have “recommended that the core federal food safety responsibilities should reside in a single entity or agency, with a unified administrative structure, clean mandate, a dedicated budget, and full responsibility for the oversight of the entire U.S. food supply.”
The most frequently offered congressional solutions to the single agency question aren’t mentioned in the report. Bills offered by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, over the years have sought a single, independent food safety agency.
The single, independent food safety agency is the model that is usually favored by groups representing consumers and victims of foodborne illness. They believe an independent agency would have the highest visibility and focus to gain public support and resources.
Obama set out six years ago, after Democrats lost control of Congress to the Republicans, to ask for the authority to reorganize government. Down through history, executive reorganization on occasion has been a bipartisan issue. Presidents Hoover, Eisenhower, and Carter are among those who’ve reorganized the executive branch. So too did George W. Bush who consolidated multiple protective units into Homeland Security after 9/11.
Obama’s plan was to first merge six business agencies and then follow up by building a single food safety agency at FDA. From Herbert Hoover through Ronald Reagan, presidents had the power to reorganize the federal government, subject only to a veto by Congress.
But Congress killed that process during the Reagan Administration and instead put itself at the center of reorganization proposals for the past 30 years. Obama was not able to get Congress to return to the congressional veto system.
Some observers say the reason reorganizations die in Congress is that any changes by the executive branch of government also change legislative branch committee lineups.
Take, for example, the $70 billion food stamp program now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s a USDA program now and falls under the House and Senate agriculture committees. Trump wants to move it out of USDA and house it with other public assistance programs. That would mean less power and influence for ag committee members.
“USDA is well poised to house the Federal Food Safety Agency,” Trump’s new proposal says. “USDA is a strong leader in food safety; has a thorough understanding of food safety risks and issues all along the farm to fork continuum, and many agencies with USDA focus on food safety.”
The report notes that USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) spends $112 million “on in-house food safety research, and ARS scientists work with both FSIS and FDA to help develop research priorities and food safety practices.”
Other USDA food safety programs involve managing wildlife on farms, monitoring animal health, collecting pesticide residue data on fruits and vegetables and working with the states.
If the Trump reorganization went through, FDA would be renamed the “Federal Drug Administration” and continue with its focus on drugs, medical devices, biologics, tobacco, dietary supplements, and cosmetics.
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