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Food Safety

Calls intensify for creation of an independent food safety agency and overhaul of laws

March 22, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 12

The idea of a single, independent agency to oversee food safety issues in the U.S. surfaces every few years. For example, in the past two Congresses, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) sponsored bills creating a single food safety agency, but the legislation did not garner much support. They plan to introduce similar bills this month.

The bills may attract more interest this year because of public outcry over the one case of mad cow disease and the consequent loss of nearly all beef export markets, valued at about $3 billion. Durbin and DeLauro, along with many consumer and other public interest groups, believe that an independent food safety agency would have sharply expanded testing for mad cow disease, technically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), shortly after the first case was discovered. Japan, which imports more U.S. beef than any other country, performs BSE tests on all cattle slaughtered for human consumption and is demanding that the U.S. do the same.

Although U.S. food is generally safe, food-related illness continues to cause major suffering and economic loss. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne pathogens are responsible for 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the medical costs and productivity losses from five important pathogens that contaminate food amount to about $6.9 billion annually.

A dozen government agencies, administering as many as 35 laws, are responsible for food safety in the U.S. These include the Food & Drug Administration, CDC, USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) and Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Customs Service. In addition, state and local governments inspect and regulate foods sold within their jurisdictions.

Every few years since 1994, the General Accounting Office, the congressional investigative agency, has written a report calling for the creation of a single, independent agency responsible for food safety or for consolidation of such responsibilities into one existing agency. GAO's most recent report, written in 2001, points out that the current system was cobbled together in piecemeal fashion over many years to address specific health threats or economic crises. GAO argues that food safety needs to be addressed comprehensively from farm to table through a uniform, rational set of laws. A 1998 report from the National Research Council comes to similar conclusions.

The issues surrounding food safety in the U.S. are contentious and complicated, and there is no consensus on how to resolve them. The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and the American Meat Institute say the present system is basically sound. The food safety regulatory system does not need radical restructuring, but it "does need changes and resources," GMA President C. Manly Molpus says.

IN CONTRAST, some consumer organizations and public interest groups are calling for a single food safety agency and a radical overhaul of existing laws. They argue, for example, that USDA's dual missions of ensuring the safety of meat and poultry and promoting meat and poultry exports around the world create blatant conflicts of interest.

For example, it would be difficult for USDA to advocate testing nearly all cattle for BSE while also trying to convince trading partners that U.S. beef is perfectly safe with only minimal testing, says Chris Waldrop, health and safety associate at the Consumer Federation of America. "If you are trying to sell meat, you are not going to look properly at all the food safety issues," he says. USDA's goal this year was to test 40,000 cattle or 0.12% of the 35 million slaughtered annually. On March 15, the agency expanded the goal to as many as 268,000 cattle per year.

USDA's FSIS is responsible for overseeing the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products, and FDA has jurisdiction over most other foods. According to critics, these split responsibilities lead to a food safety system that is fragmented and inconsistent.

For example, packaged sandwiches sold in interstate commerce are regulated by two different agencies. Manufacturers of open-faced meat or poultry sandwiches are inspected daily by FSIS, while plants that produce closed-faced sandwiches are inspected by FDA about once every five years. Another example is pizza. FSIS inspects plants that make pizza with meat in the topping, while FDA inspects manufacturers of pizza without meat.

GAO claims that because multiple agencies regulate food under inconsistent laws, resources are used inefficiently, and inspection and oversight are not based on risk.

Overall, FSIS in 1999 spent $712 million to conduct daily inspections at about 6,000 meat, poultry, and egg product facilities and importers. These produce or handle about 20% of federally regulated food. In contrast, FDA spent $283 million to inspect 57,000 food establishments, as well as thousands of food shipments entering the country. Food under FDA jurisdiction constitutes about 80% of the total but is responsible for about 85% of the nation's foodborne illness, GAO says.

In addition to inconsistencies in inspection frequencies, USDA and FDA have disparate abilities to enforce food safety laws. USDA has the authority to require firms under its jurisdiction to register so they can be inspected. Also, it can legally detain suspect foods.

For example, when USDA finds contaminated or adulterated food, it asks the producer for a voluntary recall. If the firm refuses, USDA can detain the food for 20 days while seeking a court order to seize it.

In contrast, FDA regulates seafood processing firms but has no authority to require them to register. As a result, some firms that FDA should inspect cannot be identified and operate entirely outside any regulatory system. If FDA finds suspect food, it has no authority to detain the food while seeking a court order to seize it.

GMA claims that, at least for its member companies, such regulatory inconsistencies do not compromise food safety. When contaminated food is discovered, GMA member companies always recall it immediately, according to Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the organization.

Another inconsistency between USDA and FDA concerns the Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. Under this system, begun in December 1997, food processing firms, not government inspectors, are charged with identifying and controlling hazards in the production process.

According to figures compiled by GAO in 1999, 96% of meat and poultry firms were in compliance with HACCP requirements, but fewer than half of seafood firms were in compliance. Furthermore, USDA collects data on salmonella contamination of meat and poultry, but FDA collects no such data for seafood.

Controls over imported foods are also highly inconsistent. USDA's FSIS has the authority to require that plants seeking to export meat and poultry to the U.S. have in place safety standards that are equivalent to those of the U.S. Also, the imported meat and poultry must be kept in an FSIS-registered warehouse until the agency releases the food into commerce.

FDA has no such authority over the imported foods it regulates. Instead, it must rely on port-of-entry inspections and has the resources to inspect only 1% of food imports under its jurisdiction. And this situation has become worse. FDA reports that the amount of food imports under its jurisdiction has increased fivefold over the past decade. Furthermore, FDA has no authority to hold imports in a refrigerated warehouse. By the time it detects contamination in a shipment, part of the shipment may already have been sold.

"A single food safety agency would help fill in the gaps of the patchwork system we have right now," Consumer Federation of America's Waldrop says. "If we could bring the dozen agencies that deal with food safety under one roof, it would keep a lot of things from falling through the cracks."

MANY OF THE LAWS the agencies are administering are outmoded, he says. "The laws that USDA is working with were created when the Ford Model T was around. They haven't been updated to keep pace with advances in food technology and food safety," he explains.

Now that a BSE-infected cow has been found in the U.S., "people are definitely more concerned about the safety of their food," Waldrop says. "USDA needs to expand mad cow testing to all downer animals to, if nothing else, figure out how extensive the problem is. Then they would better know what steps to take."

Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute, also argues that a single food safety agency should be created. "But it shouldn't be a part of USDA," he says. USDA is primarily oriented toward dealing with animal health issues, not human health issues, he says.

Despite renewed calls for a better food safety system, there is still a lot of feeling that forming some kind of overarching food agency would not necessarily solve any problems.

An FDA official points out that the idea of a single food safety agency is something that comes up every few years. "The real issue," he says, "is how much better can we regulate the food supply? If things are combined, and yet everything is done in exactly the same way, then there is no real net benefit. A number of regulations and laws would have to be rewritten to allow such consolidation."

"The U.S. has the safest, most affordable, most abundant food supply in the world," GMA's Childs says. "There are always things that can be done to improve the quality and safety of our food products, but creating a single food safety agency is not necessarily one of them. It would not be an efficient use of resources. When necessary, new regulations can be promulgated to improve structure or oversight in the food safety system," she says.

In addition, better measures can be taken at restaurants, at food processors, or at home to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, Childs points out. Increasing the number of inspectors at FDA is just a matter of allocating resources, she claims. "That can be done much more easily than creating a new agency," she says.

But the bills to be introduced shortly by Durbin and DeLauro, collectively titled the Safe Food Act, don't reflect this thinking. They would consolidate the primary food safety agencies into a single, independent food safety agency that would be headed by one official responsible for food safety at the federal level. That person would have the authority and resources to implement science-based policy in all federal activities related to food safety.

A final wrinkle in such a plan comes from Congress itself. If Congress eventually approves these bills, some committees would have to relinquish part of the oversight power they have over various agencies that now deal with food safety. Leonard says they would be very reluctant to do this.


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