Food safety may have a respect problem.

The President’s appointment of Jose Emilio Esteban, of California, to be Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety has gone for eight months without Senate confirmation. And a capital media investigation into the deficiencies of FDA’s major food safety unit goes largely ignored by all but a handful in Congress.

A bill to turn around some of these sad states of affairs through a major reorganization of federal food safety is now before Congress. It is a reorganization only within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It does not include USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) or other federal agencies with niche roles in food safety.

Still, its the most significant food safety bill since the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)

Introduced by Rep, Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, and Sen Dick Durbin(D-IL),  the Food Safety Administration Act would establish the Food Safety Administration, as a single food safety agency with HHS responsible for keeping the food Americans consume safe for market. It would essentially “divorce” food safety from drugs, medical devices, and other functions that would fall under the “Commissioner of Drugs.”

“Food safety is currently a second-class citizen at the Food and Drug Administration”, said DeLauro. “Right now, there are no food policy experts in charge of food safety at the FDA. That is unacceptable and contributes to a string of product contaminations and subsequent recalls that disrupt the supply chain, contribute to rising prices, and in many cases, result in consumer illness and death. Look no further than the recent infant formula crisis to understand the need to create a single food safety agency, led by a food policy expert, to ensure the safety of products that go to market. I’m proud to join my friend Senator Durbin in introducing legislation that would strengthen food safety and protect consumers.”

Den Durbin said: “In recent years, FDA has been plagued by one failure after another—from a failure to properly recognize the dangers of prescription opioids, to a failure to protect children from e-cigarette products, to a failure to properly ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply.

 “The sad reality is that FDA seems unwilling or unable to use their authority to protect Americans from preventable illness and death.  For that reason, Congresswoman DeLauro and I are introducing legislation to transfer all of FDA’s food responsibilities to a news agency that, we hope, will have more success in protecting the foods in our kids’ lunch boxes and on our dining room tables.”

“EWG applauds Senator Durbin and Congresswoman DeLauro for making the safety of our food a priority,” said Scott Faber, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group. “Every year, thousands of Americans die from foodborne illness, thousands more are hospitalized, and millions get sick. Many of these illnesses are preventable, but only if we decide to inspect food manufacturers, quickly respond to outbreaks, and stop letting the chemical companies decide whether the chemicals added to our food are safe. To do so, we must have a food safety leader who is laser-focused on our food supply.”

“The FDA’s inadequate responses to outbreaks and missed deadlines for implementing critical food safety initiatives has undermined consumer confidence in the agency’s food program,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports. “Consumer Reports commends Senator Durbin and Congresswoman DeLauro for this bill to bring focused leadership and more accountability to the FDA food program.”

The FDA regulates approximately 80 percent of our food supply, and consumers and industry depend on the FDA food program to perform its regulatory role effectively.  Foodborne illness is a common, costly, and largely preventative public health problem.

The Food Safety Administration Act would establish the Food Safety Administration under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by incorporating the existing food programs within FDA into this separate agency: the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), and the Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA). This agency would be led by a food safety expert confirmed by the Senate. 

In addition to bringing focused leadership and more accountability, a unified structure and a full-time senior leader will strengthen oversight of the food supply and enhance the industry’s ability to operate effectively, proponents say.

Joining DeLauro and Durbin as original cosponsors of this legislation are Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and U.S. Representatives Nannette Diaz Barragán (CA-44), Jimmy Panetta (CA-20), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12). 

The Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, Defend Our Health, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, STOP Foodborne Illness, and Center for Environmental Health are among the non-governmental organizations endorsing the bill.

You can find the bill text here and a fact sheet here