By Kristen Perosino
Spinach.Â Peanut butter.Â Hamburgers.Â Pet food.Â No, Iâm not preparing for a trip to the grocery store (but if I were, I might unknowingly be adding salmonella, E. coli, and aflatoxin to my grocery list).Â Iâm talking about food safety.
Americans have been made more aware lately of the flaws in our current food safety system, and many lawmakers agree that reform is necessary.Â However, they donât agree (yet) on the most effective way to address this issue.Â Letâs look at some of the food safety problems.
The U.S. food safety system is over 100 years old.Â It was framed by federal statutes that are now obsolete, and it has evolved mostly in response to particular food hazards.Â Different programs were developed and administered by different agencies over the years.Â The result is the present fragmented structure consisting of at least a dozen federal regulatory organizations, each with special food safety roles and responsibilities.Â Add to that the thousands of state and local agencies engaged in food safety, the 35 laws pertaining to food safety, and the 28 congressional committees involved in food safety â and what we have is a complicated system of shared responsibilities.
FDA is essential to this system.Â In a recent seminar at George Washington University, former FDA deputy commissioner for policy Michael Taylor discussed the agencyâs role in food safety.Â He noted that FDA has food safety expertise and a well-trained field force with a science-based approach to food inspection.Â FDA remains the international gold standard for food safety.Â However, the agency lacks a mandate for prevention (which Taylor cites as the fundamental problem), limiting the agency to a reactive rather than preventive approach to food safety.Â FDA is also challenged by internal fragmentation (responsibilities are distributed among the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and the Office of Regulatory Affairs), declining staff, and a limited capacity to provide leadership on food safety.Â Oh, did I mention resource shortages?Â This is the agency that regulates 80% of the U.S. food supply, but receives one-third of the federal food safety budget.
These are urgent concerns with serious public health implications.Â Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chair of the House Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, believes that restructuring FDA will allow the agency to better respond to emerging threats to the food supply.Â In her policy address, âThe Future of the FDA,â on Wednesday at George Washington University, DeLauro stated the following:
âWith a real concerted effort â a bold, energized campaign â we can pursue serious, sweeping change.Â We can move openly and urgently toward a unified, effective food safety system which focuses on prevention not just reaction, makes the most effective use of limited resources, and addresses both domestic and imported food safety.Â These are the basic and guiding principles â but for too long they have been compromised by outdated oversight laws that are putting lives at risk.â
This âsweeping changeâ is outlined in DeLauroâs planned bill entitled The Food Safety Modernization Act, which would create a separate Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services responsible for overseeing all food safety issues currently administered by FDA.Â This new organization would be led by a Commissioner of Food Safety and Nutrition Policy, appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate.Â FDA would be renamed the Federal Drug and Device Administration.
The Food Safety Modernization Act addresses what DeLauro identifies as the four basic institutional changes needed to ensure an effective food safety system: streamlining the fragmented legal and organizational structure, recognizing food safety as a top priority, providing food safety with vital resources and funding, and providing food safety with real leadership and authority.
The time is now, according to DeLauro.Â While the current administration has âsat on its own hands,â unsafe food products remain on the market and the public remains at risk.Â DeLauro reminds us that the 76 million Americans sickened and the 5,000 who die from foodborne illness every year are âmore than just numbers, they are people who counted on a system that was supposed to protect them, but failed.â
Â Kristen Perosino works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy and is an MPH candidate at George Washington Universityâs School of Public Health.