President Obama Is Proposing A New Way To Deal With Food Safety. But Will It Work?

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/AL BEHRMAN
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/AL BEHRMAN

President Barack Obama’s proposal to consolidate more than a dozen regulatory offices into an agency that would oversee food safety is drawing the intrigue and ire of some food safety advocates, producers, and experts — some of whom question the feasibility of a move that’s decades in the making.

The federal government has long struggled to address food safety issues. A report released by a trio of federal agencies last month confirmed that bacteria like E.coli, campylobacter, listeria, and salmonella are found in common food like beef, chicken, dairy, vegetables, and fruit. Even with some legal changes, the rate of foodborne illnesses haven’t declined in recent years, according to the latest food safety reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Right now, two entities — the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Inspection Service and Food and the Drug Administration — split food inspection responsibilities, with the former taking on meat, poultry, and processed eggs and the latter overseeing 80 percent of the nation’s food supply. Critics of the status quo say that overlaps in inspection processes and lack of oversight play a part in the spread of foodborne illnesses that strike more than 46 million people annually.

President Barack Obama wants to change that. In his 2016 budget, he suggests merging more than a dozen regulatory offices into a new agency named the Food Safety Administration. If the proposal comes to fruition, the Food Safety Administration would be housed under the Department of Health and Human Services, where its head would act as the centralized voice on all matters of food safety and regulation.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack vehemently defended Obama’s proposal during an appropriations hearing, stressing that the president wanted to streamline food inspection processes and ensure the safety of American consumers. “It’s not about tradition. It’s not about turf. It’s about food safety. We have a system that no one can contend is as effective or efficient as it needs to be,” Vilsack told lawmakers.

But not everyone is convinced. After Obama’s announcement, the Consumer Federation of America released an opposing statement, warning against adding more functions to HHS, which accounts for one-quarter of federal expenditures.

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And Douglas Powell, a former professor food safety at Kansas State University, believes the proposal is more of a cost-saving move. Powell said that, centralized or not, the success of a food system depends on the standards that all players in the food production process uphold. That was illustrated in the case of a 2009 recall, during which 700 people fell ill after eating peanut butter that the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America falsely classified as safe. That incident forced the largest national food recall in history and the first trial of a food manufacturer.

“Having fewer people sick has to be the overriding concern and I don’t think that’s the case here. There’s no evidence that a single food agency would improve food inspection,” Powell said. “Having competing agencies may be wasteful but it’s good sometimes. In the case of Peanut Corporation, you had federal, state, and organic regulators involved, and they all missed the signs. The best way to go about this issue is for everyone in the food supply system to recommit to food safety.”

Donna Rosenbaum, the CEO of Food Safety Partners, LTD, told ThinkProgress that reforming food safety in the United States means improving the functions of the existing agencies. She remains skeptical that the food inspection system could improve with what she described as a hasty change that might just worsen the problem.

“What people don’t realize is that even if you’re combining the FDA and USDA, you will have some interdepartmental problems,” Rosenbaum said. “While this seems like it would be a logical step, it requires a lot of background thought. We’re not designing this system from the get-go. Oversight for canned good and animal products is different and requires different processes, oversight, and regulatory authority. The example of the pizza and the different ingredients that go through different agencies has been used as an example but I believe there are different ways to go around that problem that wouldn’t require melding the agencies together.”

Instead, she suggested there could be greater cooperation between higher level food safety officials.

“You could accomplish more by having interagency work done at the top so they’re not so compartmentalized. We had some things happen in the past even at the cabinet level where we had some movement toward getting some of that interagency work done so food safety could happen,” said Rosenbaum.

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Other food safety advocates are more optimistic. Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called Obama’s proposal a step in the right direction. However, she said that its success depends whether the right person helms the new agency during the consolidation.

“It’s critical that there’s someone in place who can oversee that merger,” DeWaal said. “We need a strong and effective government agency to give oversight and improve inspections. Making this change will take a number of years but reorganization, whether it’s by administration or legislation should start with the appointment of a food safety administrator who oversees the merger of existing federal agencies. It’s critical that there is someone there who can do that.”

Congress has tried to reform food safety laws, passing the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, a policy intended to allow the Food and Drug Administration to act proactively against the spread of foodborne pathogens. However, organic farmers didn’t warm up to the law, compelling the agency to revise it to allow easier application of raw manure, relaxed oversight of irrigation water, and the exemption of small farms from produce safety rules. Budget shortfalls have also threatened progress in implementing the law.

While some lawmakers support the idea of a single food safety agency, they envision it standing alone. In late January, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Safe Food Act of 2015, which would make the consolidate food safety agency independent of any federal department.