There is renewed interest in Washington behind the idea of creating a single federal agency responsible for overseeing all aspects of food safety. Such an agency would consolidate efforts currently performed by an inefficient patchwork of 16 separate federal government agencies, led by FDA and USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which together administer at least 30 different laws relating to food safety and specific food commodities.
Adding to the overall complexity, the federal system is supplemented by more than 3,000 states, localities, tribes, and territories, many of which have their own laws and agencies to inspect facilities and investigate and contain illness outbreaks.
The idea for a single agency appears to be gaining attention following a comprehensive recommendation published earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress; an endorsement for action by several Senate Democrats; and a new study from Harvard University and the Vermont Law School that all urge creation of a national food strategy to address the nation’s fragmented and inefficient food safety system.
Proponents of consolidation hope that the Trump administration, with its stated interests in reducing burdensome government regulations and improving efficiency, will be receptive to the idea, even though the effort is likely to face bureaucratic road bumps and perhaps cost more money than may be saved, at least in the short term.
Not A New Idea
“None of this is new,” says David Acheson, MD, former associate FDA commissioner for foods and founder of The Acheson Group.
“For more than four decades, GAO has identified options for reducing this fragmentation as well as the overlap in food safety oversight, including establishing a single food safety agency, a food safety inspection agency, a data collection and risk analysis center, [and] a coordination mechanism led by a central chair,” Dr. Acheson explains.
In 2007, GAO added the federal oversight of food safety to its list of government areas “at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or most in need of transformation.” In addition to GAO’s recommendations, consolidation proposals have surfaced over the years through congressional legislation, a White House government budget request, and reports issued by the National Academy of Sciences, among others.
Thus far, however, little action has been taken.
While the single agency concept makes theoretical sense, there has been a notable reluctance on the part of federal officials to do much about it. Resistance, in part, has been driven by bureaucratic infighting and a lack of agreement on what exactly should be done, and by whom. Perhaps recognizing this, the latest recommendations from GAO and the universities focus instead on developing a national strategy for food safety oversight, which in turn, could lead to a consensus on how to proceed. “Absent a single agency, having a national strategy makes a lot of sense,” Dr. Acheson adds.
The latest GAO report, “Food Safety: A National Strategy Is Needed to Address Fragmentation in
Federal Oversight,” released in January 2017, is perhaps the agency’s most comprehensive analysis on the topic to date. Drawing from previous reports, it offers the following three examples of the “highly complex” current regulatory system.
- FSIS oversees processed egg products, while FDA is responsible for eggs in their shells (shell eggs). USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service sets the quality and grade standards for shell eggs (such as Grade A), but USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service manages a program to ensure laying hens are free from Salmonella at birth. FDA, however, oversees the safety of the feed that hens eat.
- FSIS inspects manufacturers of packaged open-face meat or poultry sandwiches (those made with one slice of bread) while FDA inspects manufacturers of packaged closed-face meat or poultry sandwiches (those made with two slices of bread).
- FDA has primary responsibility for regulating manufactured frozen pizzas made with cheese, but FSIS has primary responsibility for those made with meat or pepperoni. Multiple other federal agencies play roles in regulating other components of both types of pizza.
“Such distinctions are not only burdensome for food manufacturers, but also fail consumer interest,” said four U.S. senators in a February 2017 letter to President Donald Trump, in support of the GAO recommendations. The senators, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), have previously sponsored legislation to improve food safety. Now they urged Trump to quickly begin implementing the GAO’s recommendations, asking him to work with Congress “to request any additional statutory authority or budgetary consideration” that may be needed.