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Looking to Obama to Bring Logic to Food Safety

FOR reasons that defy logic, the nation’s food safety functions are split. The Agriculture Department inspects about 20 percent of the food supply (meat and poultry), and the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for almost everything else. And yet the Agriculture Department receives a majority of federal food safety dollars.

The division of labor creates internal squabbling and some bizarre situations. Frozen cheese pizzas are inspected by the F.D.A., pepperoni pizzas by the Agriculture Department. Fresh eggs are under the jurisdiction of the F.D.A.; egg products go to Agriculture.

That this makes no sense is no secret. It’s why Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, have raised again and again the idea of creating a single food agency — so far, though, to no avail.

In 1999, the Government Accountability Office (then called the General Accounting Office) issued a report called “U.S. Needs a Single Agency to Administer a Unified, Risk-Based Inspection System.”

“The fragmented system was not developed under any rational plan but was patched together over many years to address specific health threats from particular food products,” the report said. Efforts to address food safety, it says, are “hampered by inconsistent and inflexible oversight and enforcement authorities, inefficient resource use and ineffective coordination.”

It went nowhere. In the decade since, the problems have only worsened. As food imports have soared, the number of inspectors has declined as budgets have been cut. There has been salmonella in peanut butter, botulism in canned foods and melamine in infant formula.

Now comes Barack Obama, who as president-elect has vowed to cut programs “that have outlived their usefulness or exist solely because of the power of politicians, lobbyists or interest groups.” It would seem that the chances for a single food agency — which has the potential to cut all sorts of bureaucracy — would be better than ever.

Don’t hold your breath.

At least initially, Ms. DeLauro and others are calling for less-drastic changes, in part because the Obama administration has thornier problems to deal with first. In addition, some consumer advocates argue that the food side of the F.D.A., in particular, must be fixed before it can merge with the Agriculture Department’s food safety arm.

“To build the house, you need the same foundation,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutritional advocacy group in Washington. “Now you’ve got two legal foundations that don’t mesh well.”

The problem at the F.D.A. is that while it is called the Food and Drug Administration, a vast majority of the attention and financing is directed at drugs. With a limited budget and a huge workload, the food side of the agency has lurched from one crisis to the next.

Ms. DeLauro’s proposal to split the F.D.A. has won wide support among food-safety wonks. Under the new system, there would be a Food Safety Administration and a Federal Drug and Device Administration, with separate budgets and administrators reporting to the secretary of health and human services, who now oversees the F.D.A.

“Food safety is beneath three levels of bureaucracy at H.H.S.,” Ms. DeLauro said recently. “It needs to have its own function.” She added: “There is no high-ranking food safety official in the U.S. government. There is no one accountable.”

But a new agency alone won’t solve the problem, Ms. DeLauro and others say. It would need more teeth — both in resources and laws — to crack down on safety violations and to try to prevent them in the first place.

As it now stands, the federal agencies “don’t do anything until people get sick,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, distinguished fellow for the Consumer Federation of America.

Tom Daschle, Mr. Obama’s choice to head health and human services, declined comment because he hasn’t yet been confirmed. A new F.D.A. commissioner has not yet been named. Tom Vilsack, the choice for agriculture secretary, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Beyond the structure of the food-safety bureaucracy, there are all sorts of ideas for how the Obama administration could improve day-to-day oversight.

For instance, many consumer groups say the F.D.A. should scrap voluntary food-safety guidelines that are issued to the industry and replace them with concrete rules, backed by tough penalties.

IN addition, they say the F.D.A. and the Agriculture Department should have mandatory recall authority if a manufacturer refuses to pull bad food off the market. And they argue that food processing plants in the United States and abroad need to be inspected more often, which requires more inspectors.

Bill Marler, a personal-injury lawyer in Seattle who represents clients in food poisoning cases, says the first thing the Obama administration should do is invest in better surveillance for food-borne illness, like a system that Minnesota uses. “If you are able to figure out food-borne illnesses quicker,” Mr. Marler said, “you are able to prevent people from getting sick and save lives.”

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, says chronic staffing problems with meat inspectors at the Agriculture Department must be addressed. Vacancy rates are as high as 30 percent in some areas. “It has become evident that daily inspection is not occurring consistently across the country,” she wrote in a Dec. 3 memo to the Obama transition team.

Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, agrees with many of the proposed changes. But he said it might finally be time to address the lunacy of splitting food safety among different federal agencies.

“The most ideal thing is, they should have a single food agency,” he said. “Who knows? Times change. If you would have said six or eight years ago that Bush would almost nationalize part of the banking industry, people would have told you you were crazy.”


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