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Lawmakers, industry members debate proposal for single safety agency

The idea of a new, single agency charged with ensuring that everything Americans eat is held to the same safety standards isn't new, but lawmakers and food industry members are evaluating the concept with greater urgency in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in the U.S.

"The time couldn't be better to move this forward, because we've now moved our focus from food safety to include food security," said Sen. Richard Durban, D-Ill., who along with Sens. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., introduced the Safe Food Act in October. "Even if the terrorists were put out of business, a single food-safety agency would be the right way to go."

Durbin's bill would create an agency whose functions combined those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the Center for Veterinary Medicine; the Department of Commerce's Seafood Inspection Program and the food-safety functions of other federal agencies. According to Durbin, the agency would be funded with the combined budgets of the consolidated agencies.

While the bill doesn't enjoy broad support in the food industry, many agree that there is room for improvement in the federal food safety system, and that changes ought to be made sooner rather than later.

In recent testimony before a Senate Government Affairs Subcommittee, John Cady, president of the National Food Processors Association, suggested that rather than create a new agency, the way to achieve improvements "is through the creation of unified food safety policy, drawing on the best expertise throughout various departments and agencies."

Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) president C. Manly Molpus, who also testified before the Subcommittee, agreed that "scrapping a system that has worked so well for so many years [isn't] the best approach, especially when strategies exist to enhance the current system." In addition to increased funding for the FDA and other agencies, Molpus outlined a plan calling for renewed emphasis on scientific research; better coordination of resources and efforts of agencies overseeing food safety; and improved import inspection with emphasis on countries that pose the greatest perceived threats.

Whatever actions lawmakers ultimately take, one of their primary objectives is to close gaps in the food safety system with more consistent policy, organization and practices. Weighing in on the issue before the Subcommittee, the General Accounting Office (GAO) pointed out that the fragmented structure of the food safety system - some 12 different agencies administering 35 laws - has resulted inglaring inconsistencies. GAO noted that while FSIS spent $712 million in 1999 to inspect 6,000 meat, poultry and egg establishments - collectively accounting for 20 percent of federally regulated foods and 15 percent of foodborne illnesses - FDA spent $283 million during the same period to oversee 57,000 food establishments and 3.7 million import food entries. Those products account for 80 percent of the food supply and 85 percent of foodborne illness.

Hazard Analysis And Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems are also implemented differently by the agencies, with FDA reporting less than half of its plants in compliance and FSIS reporting 96 percent of its plants in compliance, according to GAO. Oversight of imported foods is likewise inconsistent. While FSIS has the authority to require exporting countries to match U.S. levels of food safety, FDA does not.

Describing the current food safety system as "a patchwork structure that hampers efforts to adequately address existing and emerging food safety risks," GAO concluded that the best solution is the creation of a single food agency.

Some, including FDA food safety director Bob Brackett, believe the current system is improving. FDA, for instance, inspected more than 90 percent of the 6,250 highest-risk plants last year, according to reports.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told Durbin that FDA has the expertise to administer all of food safety if it receives funding to do so.

A $20 billion emergency relief budget request from President Bush includes $61 million to increase inspections of imported food products by FDA. In addition to hiring more inspectors and other compliance experts, the funds would allow FDA to invest in new technology to equipment to detect select agents.

Due to a reported lack of funds, FDA currently inspects less than one percent of all imported foods and ingredients.

In related news, FSIS has established a new Food Biosecurity Action Team to implement security improvements, including internal surveillance upgrades and response capabilities. The team also plans to strengthen scientific support for activities related to possible biological threats to the meat and poultry production system. Karen Henderson, FSIS assistant deputy commissioner, Office of Field Operations, has been selected to facilitate F-BAT activities.

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