Following in a long and thus far futile tradition of attempting to consolidate the federal government’s disparate food safety activities, the Trump administration in late June proposed merging the functions of FDA with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The resulting new Federal Food Safety Agency would be housed within USDA and, unlike the present bifurcated system, would have oversight over virtually all the foods that Americans eat.
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Explore this issueAugust/September 2018
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Calling the present system “illogical and fragmented,” the Trump administration argues that consolidating FSIS and the food safety functions of FDA “would allow for a better allocation of resources based on risk, better communication during illness outbreaks, and improved policy and program planning through development of a single strategic plan.”
The new Federal Food Safety Agency would serve as the central point for coordinating with state and local food safety stakeholders, thereby “rationalizing the simplifying the federal food safety regulatory regime,” according to the reorganization plan, one of more than 30 different government reform proposals included in the “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century” report, issued June 22, 2018.
The report represents findings of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which was tasked by President Trump in March 2017 to produce a comprehensive plan to reform and reorganize the government “to better meet the needs of the American people.”
“This reorganization plan is intended to balance the mission, service, and stewardship responsibilities of the executive branch, while reducing inefficiency, risk, and duplication,” Margaret Weichert, OMB deputy director, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in June. The proposals, she explained, came from the agencies themselves, from federal employees, academics, and interest groups, and included more than 106,000 comments from members of the public.
“A transformation of this size will take time and teamwork to implement,” Weichert noted. While some changes can be made directly by the federal agencies involved, other “more complex proposals” will require action by the president or Congress, she said. The proposals span a wide range, from “reorganizing statistical agencies” and “restructuring the postal service,” to “reforming the federal role in mortgage refinance.”
Fragmented Food Safety
The OMB report notes the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, has been urging reform of the nation’s fragmented food safety oversight system for more than 40 years. According to GAO, food safety efforts are currently performed by an inefficient patchwork of 16 separate federal government agencies, led by FDA and 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.
GAO, in its most recent report on the subject (January 2017), highlighted some confounding examples: 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).
And consider pizza, the poster child for what’s wrong with this system: 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.
Creating a new, separate food safety agency “would reduce duplication of inspection at some food processing facilities, improve outreach to consumers and industry, and achieve savings over time while ensuring robust and coordinated food safety oversight,” the OMB report says. FDA, which would be stripped of most of its food responsibilities, would be renamed the Federal Drug Administration, and focus on drugs, devices, biologics, tobacco, dietary supplements, and cosmetics.