Would One Food Safety Agency Mean Better Oversight?
The Government Accountability Office issued a report the other day flagging federal oversight of food safety as a high-risk area.
The main reason? No, not the spate of food-borne illness outbreaks we've had in the past six months. Instead, the GAO focuses on the fact that 15 federal agencies collectively administer at least 30 laws related to food safety.
Exhibit A for the GAO is a ham-and-cheese sandwich:
How a packaged ham-and-cheese sandwich is regulated depends on how the sandwich is presented. USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] inspects manufacturers of packaged open-face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with one slice of bread), but FDA [Food and Drug Administration] inspects manufacturers of packaged closed-face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with two slices of bread). Although there are no differences in the risks posed by these products, USDA inspects wholesale manufacturers of open-face sandwiches sold in interstate commerce daily, while FDA inspects closed-face sandwiches an average of once every 5 years.
Other examples of inconsistent oversight created by fragmentation:
- Food products under the FDA's jurisdiction may be marketed without the agency's prior approval. On the other hand, food products under the USDA's jurisdiction must generally be inspected and approved as meeting federal standards before being sold to the public.
- Some USDA inspection facilities at ports handle and store FDA-regulated products. USDA has no jurisdiction over these FDA-regulated products. Although USDA maintains a daily presence at these facilities, the FDA-regulated products may remain at the facilities for some time awaiting FDA inspection.
The GAO recommends Congress enact comprehensive, uniform and risk-based food safety legislation
and commission the National Academy of Sciences or a blue ribbon panel to conduct "a detailed analysis of alternative organizational food safety structures."
The GAO report will likely be cited if Congress ever gets around to discussing an overhaul of the nation's food safety system. Already, some lawmakers are starting to talk again about the idea of creating one food safety agency -- a notion that was being tossed around during the Clinton era.
Interestingly, though, fragmented oversight didn't emerge as the biggest concern during last fall's outbreaks. A dearth of resources at the FDA certainly did. The absence of mandatory standards for produce growers did, too. And since President Clinton left office, we've seen what can happen when the federal government decides to create a brand new agency. (I'm thinking of a little department called Homeland Security. Being part of DHS didn't seem to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Hurricane Katrina.) Some food safety advocates also wonder if one agency would simply create one-stop shopping for lobbyists looking to find ways of preempting tougher state food safety standards.
To be fair, the GAO isn't advocating one agency. Just a "fundamental reexamination."
And who can argue with that?
What do you think? Would our food be safer if we had a single department of food safety?
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