Natural Foods Merchandiser

Wrestling with food safety: Is a single agency the answer?

Consumers Union recently issued a statement of support for legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., which calls for the creation of a single food safety agency to oversee the nation's food supply.

"They introduced this bill during the previous session, but I think we have a different situation right now, and concern about food safety issues has been building for some time," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiative for Consumers Union. Highly publicized food-borne illness outbreaks, including the spinach e. coli outbreak that killed three people in late 2006 and the recent recall of Peter Pan peanut butter because of possible salmonella contamination, have raised public awareness of the issue. In addition, Consumer Reports recently found that 81 percent of the chicken supply is contaminated with campylobacter bacteria, nearly double the rate it found five years earlier, and many fresh fish products exceed FDA's "action" level for mercury.

Halloran also pointed to a recent GAO report, which called into question the safety of the food supply. "The GAO just put food safety on its list of federal systems that are at risk, meaning that the current system is not working," she said.

Currently, FDA and USDA have primary responsibility for food safety, though 15 federal agencies operating under 30 different laws have some responsibility. Addressing the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Feb. 8, DeLauro noted discrepancies in spending between the agencies.

" Two-thirds of expenditures for food safety are directed toward USDA, which is only responsible for regulating 20 percent of the food supply. By contrast, FDA is responsible for regulating 80 percent of the food supply, yet it receives only 24 percent of our food safety expenditures," DeLauro said.

In addition, neither agency has needed authority to deal with food-borne illness outbreaks. "In addition to enforcement issues, both agencies lack explicit recall authority," Halloran said. "Few consumers realize that recalls of tainted foods are voluntary."

In addition, the two agencies' authority is divided in ways that may seem counterintuitive. "We have really arbitrary distinctions," Halloran aid. "The classic example is that FDA regulates frozen cheese pizza, but USDA regulates pizza with pepperoni." In addition USDA regulates cows and chickens, while FDA regulates milk and eggs.

In spite of the regulations currently in place, the CDC estimates that 76 million Americans suffer from food-borne illness annually, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

The Durbin/DeLauro bill proposes the establishment of a single food safety agency, as well as additional powers of enforcement to initiate mandatory recalls and establish HACCP procedures in plants that produce nonmeat food products.

"We support the proposal for a single agency with authority, resources and leadership to oversee a safe and secure food supply in the 21 st century food market," said Sally Greenberg, senior counsel at Consumers Union.

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