January 29 2015
Consolidating food-safety functions might be smart, but why create a whole new federal agency?
Congressional Democrats are proposing a new federal agency dedicated exclusively to food safety. The Safe Food Act of 2015, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (Ill.) Wednesday, would create a new "Food Safety Administration" to set and enforce regulations. DeLauro, Durbin, and friends say creating the new agency would actually save money and cut down on bureaucracy, as there are currently 15 agencies with some role in food-safety rulemaking and enforcement. "The fragmented Federal food safety system and outdated laws preclude an integrated, system-wide approach to preventing foodborne illness," their bill states.
Fragmented as it may be, however, the vast majority of food safety authority still lies with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though the Department of Agriculture oversees meat, poultry, and egg safety. I have no love for the FDA, which generally seems more interested in empire-building, extortion, protecting the status quo, and promoting the interests of big pharmaceutical companies and agribusiness than actually helping bring the best, safest drugs, food, and devices to market. But I'm also skeptical that simply transferring authority from the FDA to a new, even more powerful agency would help things out. And I'm equally skeptical that the new agency would really replace all these other oversight bodies, rather than serve as an addition.
"The stated goals of integrating functions and avoiding duplication of efforts and reducing time sound good," writes Patricia Lee, a senior fellow at Independent Women's Forum. "But what is the likelihood that all of these agencies would cede their authority to this new agency though? And let's not gloss over the fact that they have yet to give us a price tag for creating this new agency."
Allegedly, the Food Safety Administration would take over all responsibility for "the food safety, labeling, inspection, and enforcement functions that ... are performed by other Federal agencies." But elsewhere the bill says the new agency would be charged with "coordination and prioritization of food safety research and education programs with other Federal agencies" as well as coordination "with other agencies and State or local governments in carrying out inspection, enforcement, research, and monitoring." That's a bit confusing.
The Government Accountability Office has previously reported on the need for better food safety coordination, and some of the fragmentation does seem silly. Rep. DeLauro points out:
One agency manages the health of hens, another oversees the feed that they eat, another sets egg quality standards but does not test them for Salmonella. While still in its shell, the egg is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration, but once it’s processed into an egg product, it becomes the responsibility of Food Safety and Inspection Service.
But couldn't lawmakers consolidate food-safety responsibilities without creating a whole new federal agency?
It seems the Food Safety Administration is something of a white whale for Durbin and DeLauro—they've introduced similar legislation four times, in 1999, 2004, 2005, and 2007. With Republicans now in control, it seems their effort this time may end up like the others. But "if the committees don't take it seriously," Durbin said he'll try to tack it on as an amendment to other legislation.