Lawmakers renew call for single food safety agency

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Food

An effort to consolidate food safety oversight in the US last week
gathered momentum after the reintroduction of the Safe Food
Act.

The legislation, proposed by Senator Dick Durbin and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, calls for the development of a single food safety agency and the standardization of the nation's food safety activities. First introduced in 2005 and already attracting significant support from public health groups, the bill aims to help protect consumers from food-borne illness by consolidating the current fragmented and overlapping food-safety system. Under current law, food safety monitoring, inspection and labeling functions are spread across 15 agencies in the federal government, including the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which oversees meat, poultry and egg products; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which oversees most other food products; and the US Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service which inspects fish. The agencies collectively administer at least 30 laws. The Safe Food Act​ would consolidate the activities of the various federal agencies, which are currently each responsible for different portions of the nation's food supply. According to Durbin and DeLauro, their efforts were reinforced in recent weeks after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) deemed federal oversight of food safety as "high risk"​ to the economy and public health and safety. "From the E. coli outbreak that pulled spinach off store shelves to the Taco Bell outbreak that sickened 71 individuals in 5 states, it is clear that our food safety structure is collapsing and endangering public health,"​ said DeLauro. "The GAO confirmed this by designating the federal oversight of food safety as a high-risk area in need of broad-based transformation to achieve greater effectiveness and accountability. The report notes that the patchwork nature of the federal oversight of food safety calls into question whether the government can plan more strategically to inspect food production processes, identify and react more quickly to any food-borne illness outbreaks. The GAO also questions whether the fragmented structure allows agencies to focus on achieving results to promote the safety and integrity of the food supply,"​ she added. ​ Durbin and DeLauro said the involvement of so many agencies can result in duplication of responsibilities, service gaps and inconsistencies and confusion about which agency oversees different types of food. For example, they said, FDA has jurisdiction over frozen cheese pizza, and inspects cheese pizza processors once every 10 years on average. On the other hand, USDA has responsibility over frozen pepperoni pizza, and inspects such processors daily. In another example, eggs still in the shell are under the jurisdiction of FDA, while USDA takes over once the eggs are broken. "The new agency created by the lawmakers' bill – dubbed the Food Safety Administration – would be the first of its kind, free from the entanglements of past regulators who have had to balance food safety with the competing priorities of drug approval or agriculture promotion,"​ according to a statement on DeLauro's website. "It is long past time for the Congress to pass The Safe Food Act and create a single food safety agency," she said.​ Some of the new responsibilities under the Food Safety Administration​ would include: regular, but random, inspection of all food processing plants; categorized review process for all foods to monitor and inspect them based on their risk, not their name; increased oversight of imported foods; and established requirements for tracing foods to point of origin.

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