Do We Need A Department of Food?


Salmonella-laced peanut butter from a plant in Georgia has sickened an estimated 19,000 people in 43 states, killing eight. The owner of the plant, the Peanut Corporation of America, is under federal criminal investigation for knowingly selling contaminated products. More than 1,000 products have been pulled from store shelves, making this one of the largest food recalls in the nation’s history.

Food-borne illnesses are not uncommon. But this case has raised particular concern because peanuts are ubiquitous and the patchwork monitoring system — with at least 12 federal agencies regulating food safety — was unable to detect and stop shipments of tainted products, going back as far as 2007.

Would creating a single “Department of Food,” consolidating the food-safety work of the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, to name just two agencies, better protect consumers? How could the current crisis have been prevented?

* David A. Kessler, former F.D.A. commissioner

* James E. McWilliams, history professor

* Jaydee Hanson, food policy analyst

* Ann Cooper, chef

* Bill Marler, lawyer specializing in contaminated food cases

* Caroline Smith DeWaal, Center for Science in the Public Interest

This Failure Is No Surprise

David Kessler

David A. Kessler is a professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco, and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

If there’s one incident that shows our food safety system is broken, this nationwide salmonella outbreak is it. Under the current regulatory framework, it is up to the Food and Drug Administration to discover whether there are problems at a plant. Yet, the tools and resources that the agency has at its disposal are so limited that it’s no surprise that problems go undetected.

Inspectors can sample batches and view factory conditions, but at best they see only a snapshot of what is happening. Even if the plant gets inspected every year, what about the conditions at the plant the other 364 days? The current system is a reactive one that waits for problems to be discovered.

The current system is a reactive one that waits for problems to be discovered.

It may be right to create a separate, new food agency with a single mission. But before we take that step there’s much that can be done to improve the current system.

The first step is for the Obama administration to appoint an F.D.A. commissioner who will make food safety a top priority and for the White House and the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture to assure the appropriate coordination between federal agencies. The second step is for the Congress to overhaul obsolete food safety laws and create a system of preventive controls with appropriate federal regulatory oversight, including giving F.D.A. such basic tools as records inspection and recall authority.

Senator Dick Durbin and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro have drafted legislation that requires all food companies, whether foreign or domestic, to assess potential hazards and develop plans that would prevent food safety problems from occurring in the first place, with appropriate federal oversight.

Under a system of preventive controls, food manufacturers would be required to identify where hazards can occur and put in place measures to prevent them. They would be required to monitor their control measures work through testing and record keeping to detect problems and fix them, not just when regulators are inspecting the plant.

The F.D.A. should have access to those records and be able to verify that the plant meets food safety performance standards. This is an issue that can and should rally bipartisan support.

The third step is for the Congress and administration to take a hard look at whether F.D.A. is up to the job of assuring the safety of all foods, drugs, medical products, and, soon, tobacco. I have long been a believer in the F.D.A., but given the agency’s many mandates, I have my doubts that it can give food the focus it deserves.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

James Mcwilliams

James E. McWilliams, an associate professor of history at Texas State University, is the author of several books about food and agriculture, including “American Pests: Our Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT” and the forthcoming “Just Food.”

Given the increasing vulnerability of our ever-globalizing food system, the creation of a government agency dedicated to the safety of the United States food supply has obvious appeal. Nevertheless, I’m doubtful that we need it.

We’ve already built a federal administration mandated to undertake such a task. The fact that the Food and Drug Administration — specifically the Center of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition — has abjectly failed to do its job strikes me as an inadequate justification for such an expensive addition to the federal government. Bureaucracy might be a necessary evil, but a redundant bureaucracy is just plain evil.

Every major threat to the food supply in 2008 could have been avoided had the F.D.A. been run by enlightened regulators dispersed across the nation rather than industry advocates concentrated far too close to K Street.

Instead, we should seek to radically reform the F.D.A. Every major threat to the food supply in 2008 — melamine in milk powder, mercury in high-fructose corn syrup and now salmonella in peanut butter — could have been avoided had the F.D.A. been run by enlightened regulators dispersed across the nation rather than industry advocates concentrated far too close to K Street.

A decentralized and restructured Food and Drug Administration staffed with genuine regulators could become especially vigilant protectors of United States (and global) consumers if it were empowered by Congress to conduct testing for the chronic (rather than only acute) impact of trace adulterants in our food; investigate systematically the raw materials that fuel industrial food (glutens, powders, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.), making all results public; and base all policy decisions and changes on hard science (something it failed to do when it arbitrarily changed melamine standards last November) while making it available online.

As far as I can tell, advocates of a Department of Food envision the agency as a means to pursue systems of alternative agriculture that produce “real” rather than industrialized food. What they must realize is that an F.D.A. reformed according to the principles listed above would become an F.D.A. supportive of that very quest.

Purifying food is a difficult enough job as it is. Let’s not try to reinvent the wheel at the same time.

Start Over With One Agency

Jaydee Hanson

Jaydee Hanson is a policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy organization.

It’s clear to me that the United States needs an independent Food Safety Administration. The Food and Drug Administration has had a string of safety failures with tomatoes, peppers, spinach, green onions, salad greens, and now peanut butter. The Department of Agriculture has allowed ill and crippled animals to be slaughtered and released into our food supply.

A single agency would be able to develop transparent safety standards, consolidate and prioritize food safety programs, and coordinate the federal response to outbreaks of food contamination. It would make it more possible to set up a science-based system to vet genetically engineered foods; overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to allow the application of toxic sludge from sewage treatment plants to our nation’s cropland; and create food labeling and tracking systems across the supply chain so that disease outbreaks can be tracked promptly to the source.

The creation of this body must be accompanied by a clean sweep of senior agency officials who have put the interests of agribusiness and drug companies before people’s health. In a move away from business-centric initiatives, the new agency should promote organic agriculture as a national priority to wean our farms off poisonous petrochemicals, thereby enhancing both food safety and international security.

Meat, dairy and poultry industry regulations all need to be overhauled. This agency could oversee initiatives to encourage producers to improve the sanitation at live stock operations, reduce environmental impacts, and provide fair wages and working conditions for employees. The safety of our produce and meats was once the envy of the world. Unless we act quickly, we will be known as a nation that puts corporate profit above the health of its people.

The Problem Is Industrialized Food

Ann Cooper

Ann Cooper, a chef, is the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District in California and co-author of “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.”

Some have suggested that a separate Department of Food would make our food supply safer. I’m not certain that is the answer.

I don’t believe that a Department of Food in and of itself would make our food system safer. What we need is to reinvent our food system to a more sustainable one, where the health of our children and planet are given more priority than a bottom line.

We need to turn our entire food system into a more localized one.

For far too long, government oversight of big agribusiness has lacked the strength to ensure the food safety. Part of the problem is that a big part of the Department of Agriculture’s mission is to promote industrial scale agriculture in our country — which to my mind constitutes a serious conflict of interest. The department also oversees the National Organic Program and the National School Lunch Program.

It’s only too clear from the announcement on Thursday that the tainted peanut butter ended up in schools that the U.S.D.A. is incapable of protecting our children.

For the past decade, I’ve worked in a movement pushing to reform school food and for more than 20 years I have been an advocate of local/sustainable food. This means buying food with a “face” — food that comes from our community — food that comes as part of a relationship. This is antithetical to the agribusiness system that runs our country’s food system.

This anonymous system allows 10 companies, including Monsanto and Dupont, who brought us Agent Orange and stain resistant carpet, respectively, to control 90 percent of our country’s commercially produced seeds. The vast majority of grocery store food comes from a handful of multinational companies, which are only beholden to their shareholders.

If we want to make disease outbreaks a thing of the past, we have to move away from this industrial model of food production to one that is more localized and able to put a higher priority on children’s health, the environment and the health of sustainable businesses.

As a matter of social justice, every child should be served a delicious and nutritious breakfast and lunch at school. This is crucial for life-long health and for closing the achievement gap for low-income children. This, too, only be accomplished through an new model of food production.

Local Government’s Role

William Marler

Bill Marler is a Seattle-based trial lawyer and food safety advocate.

The idea of one Department of Food Safety has gained media attention, with some in Congress having called for a single agency combining the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Services, which oversees beef, poultry, pork and lamb, with the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which oversees everything else. (Perhaps they split jurisdiction if pepperoni is added to a cheese pizza?)

As a lawyer, I like the idea of a single agency focused on one thing. However, at this time I’m simply not sure that it would amount to more than “re-arranging the deck chairs on Titanic.”

By the time an outbreak catches the attention of federal authorities, it’s too late.

For now, at least, we need to focus on the immediate crisis. Let’s save the reorganization until we make some progress on changes that are possible in the existing system.

We should require more reporting and surveillance by local health professionals. By the time an outbreak catches the attention of federal authorities, it’s too late. First responders — emergency room physicians and primary care doctors — need to be encouraged to routinely test for pathogens and to report promptly any patterns of symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting and fever to local and state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We could provide tax breaks for companies that put in place food safety measures and increase support for research to develop better technologies to make food safe and to test foods for contamination.

Food safety should be made a homeland security issue, too. We need more inspectors — domestically and abroad - and they need training in how to identify and control hazards.

Right now there are too few consequences for bad food producers. We should impose stiff fines for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat offenders.

Finally, more consumer involvement would help. A popular campaign, similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to promote a no-tolerance policy toward growers and companies that produce tainted food could send a strong message to their bottom line.

What Would Lincoln Do?

Caroline DeWaal

Caroline Smith DeWaal is the food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and co-author of “Is Our Food Safe: A Consumer’s Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment.”

When President Abraham Lincoln established the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862, he called it the People’s Department. And that still holds true today.

The department feeds 1 in 10 Americans through school lunches and food banks. It is a huge purchaser for its school lunch program and inspects all meat and poultry products — indeed it is the largest national food safety program. And it oversees the accuracy of nutrition labels and the safety of food additives in those products. So it is welcome relief to hear Tom Vilsack, President Barack Obama’s new agriculture secretary, champion his agency’s role in representing “eaters” as well as farmers.

A simple way forward is to rename the agency the United States Department of Food and Agriculture.

In 1862, the formation of the Department of Agriculture was both good government and good politics. Lincoln took over a young nation built by farmers, who found a rich land of opportunity. They had settled the coastal areas and then pushed West, setting up farms and ranches along the way. Now the department plays an important role in representing farmers’ interests in a world that has changed drastically, from local enterprises to having commodities bought and sold all over the world.

But, unfortunately, the department has lost sight of it roots in local, sustainable agriculture, and that movement is clearly gaining strength. Food safety problems drive consumers to look closer to home, to seek out smaller processors, and to consider the impact of their purchasing decisions on the local economy. “Country of Origin Labeling” is hugely popular. Even as these new labels are appearing, many consumers are seeking more information, checking to see if they can buy locally grown products or measure the carbon “food print” of foods. The federal government needs to act accordingly, acknowledging these sensible consumer desires and the producers that want to meet them.

Mr. Vilsack is right that eaters need to be a focus of his agency equal to that of farmers. A simple way forward for the Obama administration would be to follow the lead of California and Massachusetts and rename the agency the United States Department of Food and Agriculture. The United Nations also took this approach with the naming of the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945. Given the changes in agriculture since Lincoln was president, he might even agree that the name change was warranted.