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Food (Safety) Fight

By Ed O'Keefe

What Would You Do?

Lawmakers have proposed several competing measures in recent weeks to reform the nation's food safety efforts and pump more money into the Food and Drug Administration, the nation's primary food safety inspection agency. While the ideas have sparked a government-wide "food fight" over turf, ideology and funding, they come as the recent salmonella outbreak involving peanut products has killed at least nine people and could cost the peanut industry more than $1 billion.

In the House, Democrats propose giving FDA greater enforcement powers, including the ability to request a food manufacturing plant's food safety records and subpoena companies that violate guidelines. The House bill is similar to a Senate proposal introduced last week.

While it's not the government's job to make food safe, it should "set standards for food safety and hold the food industry accountable for meeting those standards through regulatory and enforcement authorities," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on health and a cosponsor of Dingell's bill. "We must empower the FDA with those authorities, so that the agency can effectively prevent problems from ever occurring, rather than simply reacting once something bad has happened."

During a hearing he chaired today, Pallone and most of his colleagues agreed that the government should first address concerns at FDA before exploring proposals to merge all of the government's food safety efforts.

"Our first goal should be to address the problems that plague this program where it currently sits," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) "After we finish that job, we can consider whether a reorganization is necessary, and, if necessary how to go about it.”

If and when they reach that point, there's a proposal from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) that would merge most government responsibilities for food safety under a new Food Safety Administration. DeLauro has made similar proposals in the past, but this time she has support of officials including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who generally supports her ideas.

"We are not just editing the bureaucratic flow chart here," DeLauro wrote in a recent op-ed. "This is the first step in transforming the FDA, bringing our current food safety system out of the past, and recognizing that every statistic has a human face and a powerful personal story."

The FDA and USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service account for most federal food safety responsibilities and funding, but a helpful loyal reader reminded The Eye that at least 12 other government agencies have some involvement in securing the nation's food supply. For example: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention work on surveillance and investigates foodborne illnesses. The Federal Trade Commission also plays a role, since it regulates food advertising. Then there's the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which oversees most alcoholic beverages, and Customs and Border Protection, which monitors food and agricultural products that pass through ports of entry.

Regardless of what the government does about food safety, industry leaders urged Congress today to address critical workflow and communication concerns. Thomas E. Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, noted that the government lacks a cohesive emergency response and communication plan.

"No one is in charge of these outbreak investigations, there's no chain of command," he said, adding later that "Crisis planning is not done in advance, it seems to be learned on the job."

"Any risk communication expert would advise precision and care in communicating exactly what needs to be said, and not speculating. One single office at FDA needs to have the authority and accountability for public communications with one single officer designated as the media spokesperson."

While The Eye professes little expertise on food safety issues (he defers to Post colleague Lyndsey Layton and others for the specifics), it's obvious that any conversation about funding and reorganizing a major government agency will have an impact on the federal workforce.

So ... What Would You Do? Pump more money into FDA and give it enforcement powers? Merge the government's food safety efforts into one or fewer agencies? Or something entirely different?

Share your thoughts on the matter in the comments section below. Provide specifics where you can, keep it clean and enjoy the conversation.

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 11, 2009; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, What Would You Do?  
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Next: Eye Opener: March 12, 2009


For once the people on the hill are getting it seems like a terrible time to make a new map of the world. I can't think of any agency that gets more criticism than FDA though, for the way both food AND drugs are handled. But here's the thing--you say government shouldn't be reponsible for insuring food safety--why not? If the government is insuring drug and medical safety, how is food any different? George Will got it right in a recent column when he made this connection. Also, you might be interested in this farm policy blog post about Obama:

Posted by: RobinFromIowa | March 12, 2009 7:45 AM | Report abuse

I agree - it is absolutely a function of government to protect the food supply and make sure it’s safe. The problem right now is that the left hand has no clue about what the right hand is doing -- and the fact that our food safety system is about as modern as a spinning wheel. Congress is smart to modernize and streamline the various food safety offices at FDA. Eventually they should bring together FDA and USDA under one roof to truly ensure Americans stop needlessly dying from eating the wrong sandwich.

Posted by: brassring7 | March 12, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

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