The Checkout

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?

By Annys Shin |  February 2, 2007; 8:30 AM ET Consumer News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

("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.)"

DHS had nothing to do with the failures of FEMA during Katrina. FEMA was doing fine until the press decided to find only the bad things that happened and plaster them all over the TV and print media.

With that said, the enormous task of food regulation management might be better under one roof.

Posted by: Frank | February 2, 2007 11:25 AM

Let me see if I can accurately predict the responses from the "food police" crowd that is drawn to posts on food topics like moths to a flame:

"The government has no business telling us how to make our personal choices. They should butt out and let companies sell whatever they want to without any sort of oversight. People who get sick shouldn't have been eating food in the first place, it's all their own fault."

Posted by: HarleyMom | February 2, 2007 12:20 PM

Actually combining the relevant food safety agency in USDA with the food safety portions of FDA has been around for a much longer time than since the Clinton Administration - it goes back to the Carter years. I used to have a copy of a proposed agreement (dated October 1980) to combine those entities, with signatures of the relevant USDA parties, up to (and including) the Assistant Secretary level. Of course, Reagan was elected a few weeks later, and the effort died. The concept also made it into Gore's "Re-inventing Government" report, but shortly thereafter the Republicans took over the Hill, and the effort to create a single Food Safety Agency died again.

Posted by: m-41 | February 2, 2007 12:33 PM

I agree with HarleyMom. It might cut down on food borne illness, it might not. It might cause there to be more due to less oversight. But what difference would it make, it would be the same industry cronies letting cloned meat as "safe" make it to the market unlabeled, the same people that wanted to let GMOs be sold as "organic" if grown without pesticides. They don't have our concern at heart, but the concern of the bottom line back at the headquarters most of them worked at before being "chosen" to lead the various departments.

Posted by: Mdfarmerboy | February 2, 2007 12:58 PM

Despite what some people think, one agency does not necessarily mean less oversight. It can me more pointed/concise oversight, tighter rules and better regulation.

More oversight does not mean better regulation or better management. Many agencies are loaded with oversight but bad still gets through

Posted by: John | February 2, 2007 2:12 PM

I don't think it's necessary to consolidate it all under one agency, but it should be consistent. For one type of sandwich to get daily inspections and another type to get inspected once every few years, because of the presence or absence of one slice of bread, is ridiculous.

Perhaps there's a reason why FDA does one and USDA does the other, but there should be some sort of common standards so that both agencies do it in the same way at about the same frequency.

Posted by: SteveG | February 2, 2007 2:30 PM

Effective policy analysis does not make an honest politician or conscientous bureaucrat. You are mixing the question up.

Could we come up with a more effective, science-based theoretical food regulatory regime? Absolutely.

Is there enough political will or integrity to come up with an equitable, effective and efficient food regulatory regime? Hmmm. I will just say the words "death tax." Regardless of structure, the system will be manipulated to serve the interests of agribusiness and our health and long-term well being will suffer.

I'm afraid the perception of government has gotten that bad.

Posted by: Bob Roberts | February 2, 2007 3:08 PM

What do you mean by "death tax?" No one is taxed for dying. That would be silly.

Posted by: SteveG | February 2, 2007 4:31 PM

Reference to framing of policy debate and ultimate solution over inheritance tax.

Posted by: Bob Roberts | February 2, 2007 8:37 PM


I was not speaking about your post in my original post. I was speaking about the general way the question and discussion was framed. Sorry about the confusion.

Posted by: Bob Roberts | February 2, 2007 8:41 PM

What is so very upsetting about this issue is that we are forced to be hyper-alert to our food supply now and it is something most of us don't expect nor need. When I risk my life by starting my car and proceeding into traffic, I am aware of that risk. When I pick up a fork and eat lettuce, up to now, I have not had to assume the same risk parameters. We deserve better than that if we truly are living in a "developed" country.

Posted by: Frank | February 4, 2007 1:04 PM

Bob Roberts, thanks, I see what you are saying now, and agree.

Hope you read past the spam from che to see this.

Posted by: SteveG | February 5, 2007 3:44 PM

The reason USDA and FDA's oversight differs is because of the outdated federal food laws passed by congress. If there were one single agency, it would still operate under the same laws which means oversight will still not be consistent. In my opinion, reorganizations tend to be about jocking for power by political elites. Perhaps updating the laws and giving them consistent approaches would be much more helpful.

Posted by: FoodWorker | February 13, 2007 9:36 PM

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