The potential merger of the dozen or so US federal agencies that monitor food safety, an idea long popular among American Democrats, is getting a fresh look by the Bush administration as part of stepped up security after the September 11 attacks, an official said on Thursday.
A single food safety agency to oversee meat, poultry, vegetables, fish, processed foods, and biotech foods has been endorsed for years by Democrats.
The U.S. food industry opposes such an approach. The Clinton administration rejected as too cumbersome the idea of combining all the bureaucracies now involved in food safety.
But Tom Ridge, the White House director of homeland security, told a national security conference on Thursday that "we ought to at least take a look" at merging the food safety functions.
Currently, food safety responsibilities are scattered among the U.S. Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centres for Disease Control, the Commerce Department, the Customs Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and several other agencies.
Some experts have said that the fast-growing volume of imported foods and the cross-country distribution of domestically grown products could make it easy for foods to be deliberately contaminated.
"One agency does chickens and pigs, and another agency does vegetables," said Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania.
"We need to consider this in light of homeland security, whether or not we want to have multiple organisations basically tasked with the same responsibility, or if we couldn't enhance our security, improve our efficiency and maybe save a few bucks and put them some place else for enhanced security if we merged functions," he added.
Ridge's remarks were unexpected because the administration has had little to say about food safety since taking office in January.
While campaigning for the presidency in June 2000, George W. Bush said in a speech on government reform that too many government agencies were involved in food safety. Aides later indicated that Bush was interested in streamlining the agencies to improve efficiency, not creating a new one.
Democrats said they were pleased the administration was interested in the idea.
"You can no longer separate food security from national security," said a spokeswoman for Durbin. "You cannot take the safety of our food supply for granted."
It was unclear how quickly the White House would proceed with its review of food safety.
"It is an intriguing idea and we are going to this year or next year be looking at a couple of variations," Ridge said.