Is It Time For A Single Food Safety Agency?

As soon as President Obama’s budget proposal came out, journalists and citizens played the tea-leaf game, examining its contents for clues to major policy changes. It didn’t take much analysis to discover that this year’s budget document offers a major shift in federal food policy. For the first time, the White House is calling for the creation of a single food agency — a move that would fix a disconnect in the food safety system that has existed for 100 years. The fix has been proposed before, but never by a President. It might not happen — but it’s likely to spark a broader conversation this time around.

In a gesture toward transparency, the White House placed the entire narrative and text of its budget on Medium, so it is easy to read the proposal. The food-safety language is in Chapter 3.6. It begins with a justification of why reform is needed: food safety is all over the government’s organizational chart. The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for meat and poultry; the Food and Drug Administration oversees eggs. (USDA gets processed egg product, though. Go figure.)

“FDA and FSIS can each have jurisdiction over the same category of food at different points in the food chain: a cheese pizza and its ingredients are regulated solely by FDA, but both agencies play roles in regulating the components and manufacturing of a pepperoni pizza. FSIS inspects manufacturers of packaged open-face meat or poultry sandwiches, while FDA inspects manufacturers of closed-face meat or poultry sandwiches,” the document says.

FDA oversees seafood — except for catfish, which FSIS tracks. And those are just two of the 15 federal agencies overseeing food safety, according to a report published last year by the Congressional Research Service. They administer a patchwork of 30 different laws.

The budget proposes to consolidate FSIS and the food safety arms of the FDA to create one agency within HHS. “This new agency would be independent from FDA and have primary responsibility for food safety inspections, enforcement, applied research, and outbreak response and mitigation,” it says. “A single Federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.”

If this sounds all too familiar, it might be because I talked about the idea of a single food agency in this post in December, in the context of a call by food activists for a national food policy. The idea is hardly original, though. Activists, and analysts within the government, have called for a single agency for years. A sample: the Government Accountability Office, dating back to 1999 and in many reports since; the Office of Management and Budget; food scholar Marion Nestle; and nonprofits including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America.

There have also been multiple pieces of legislation proposing a single agency. The most recent, in fact, landed last month: Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Safe Food Act of 2015, proposing to create a single agency with more tracing and enforcement ability than any one agency possesses now. As food-safety attorney Bill Marler noted, this marks the fifth time that those two legislators have offered this proposal. “Our food safety system is hopelessly fragmented and outdated. Consequently, lives are unnecessarily put at risk and the need for reform becomes more urgent,” DeLauro said in January.

The proposal for a single agency comes in the context of an administration that has already improved food-safety regulation and funding via the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed in January 2011. That law enhanced the FDA’s powers, but it did not consolidate the tasks of other agencies in any meaningful way.

The single-agency proposal would take significant turf, personnel and money out of the very powerful USDA and add it to the already complicated HHS, so early handicapping on it is mixed. Business Insider suggests the FDA itself was taken aback by the idea, but USA Today reports that the USDA supports it.  According to McClatchy News Service, consumer groups are divided. Politico declared it “dead on arrival” — but, on the other hand, likely to stimulate serious discussion for the first time of how such a move might be made. As Politico’s Stephanie Simon wrote,  “Major industry and food safety advocacy groups are wary of the change, and the concept has never caught fire in Congress… But the president’s unexpected use of the budget to support the idea could at least spark debate.”