In his 2016 budget plan, released early February, President Barack Obama proposed consolidating the food safety oversight now under the purview of the FDA and the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service into a single new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The agency would direct food safety inspections, enforcement, applied research, and responses to food-poisoning outbreaks.
“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 foodborne illnesses,” according to the budget proposal.
The President’s budget language followed new legislation introduced January 28 by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) called the Safe Food Act of 2015, which proposes merging the responsibilities of the 15 agencies that presently have some authority over food safety into a single independent entity known as the “Food Safety Administration.” (Unlike the President’s proposal, this agency would apparently not be housed within HHS.)
This isn’t a new idea, says Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, professor emeritus of food science, University of Wisconsin-River Falls and principal and managing member of PCV & Associates, LLC. “It’s not the first time an idea like this has been floated—streamlining of authority, position, and function.” Indeed, Durbin and DeLauro have proposed similar bills multiple times in the past. “But given the way our government works, or doesn’t work, it hasn’t been feasible.”
In a recent newsletter, David Acheson, MD, founder and CEO of The Acheson Group and former chief medical officer for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said of the DeLauro-Durbin bill “good idea—bad implementation and likely impossible to pay for.”
Dr. Vasavada praises the President’s proposal as a “good idea in principle,” noting that European nations have made progress in terms of plant hygiene and recalls with single-agency oversight. “However, the devil is in the details,” he says. “Right now, we’re still trying to finalize the FSMA preventive controls rules, and it might be too big a task to handle at the moment.”
Nonetheless, he says that the President is on the right track, and even if the proposal is not achieved during the remainder of his administration, “It’s not unusual that something started in one administration moves to a second administration. It’s better late than never, and somebody has to propose it.”