We need a Food Safety Administration within HHS

The US Department of Health and Human Services needs a makeover, says a report from Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The report, Keeping America’s Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the US Department of Health and Human Services, examines problems with the fragmented and antiquated current system and proposes ways to improve the food safety functions at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The report calls for the immediate consolidation of food safety leadership within FDA, and ultimately the creation of a separate Food Safety Administration within HHS. Currently, no FDA full-time food safety official has line authority over all food safety functions, says the report. A speedy effort by the Obama administration to consolidate leadership within FDA, followed by Congressional action to create a separate Food Safety Administration, would ensure immediate progress on food safety and create a platform for long-term success in reducing foodborne illness, the report stated.

“Food safety needs to be a priority on the prevention menu,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We shouldn’t have to worry about our children getting sick from their school lunch or from a family meal at a restaurant. And we shouldn’t have to wait until people become sick to learn about food safety problems. We need modern, comprehensive ways of preventing and detecting problems before food gets to the table.”

Approximately 80% of the food supply-including millions of food producers, processors, transporters, storage facilities, grocery stores and restaurants- is regulated by FDA. The vast majority of known foodborne illnesses are associated with these products, says the report. Some recent problems include the 2009 salmonella outbreak in peanut butter and peanut butter products; potential imports of the 2008 melamine-contaminated infant formula and related diary products in China; the 2008 salmonella outbreak in peppers; and a 2008 salmonella outbreak from imported cantaloupes.

“FDA certainly needs a modern food safety law and more resources, but to make good use of these tools, HHS needs a unified and elevated management structure for food safety that can implement a science- and risk-based food safety program dedicated to preventing foodborne illness,” said Michael R. Taylor, JD, research professor of health policy at the School of Public Health at The George Washington University. “Major organizational change requires careful planning and implementation and should not be rushed, but the time is ripe for building sustainable solutions to the problems in our nation’s food safety system,” he added. Taylor is the former deputy commissioner for policy at FDA and former administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the US Department of Agriculture.

The report recommends:

  • Increasing and aligning resources with the highest-risk threats;
  • Modernizing the mandate and legal authority of the HHS Secretary to prevent illness, which would include enforcing the duty of food companies to implement modern preventive controls and meet government-established food safety performance standards;
  • Immediately establishing a deputy commissioner at FDA with line authority over all food safety programs, including the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and the food functions of the Office of Regulatory Affairs, as an interim step toward creating a Food Safety Administration; and
  • Working through Congress toward the creation of a Food Safety Administration within HHS, strategically aligning and elevating the food safety functions currently housed at FDA and better coordinating regulation policies and practices with the surveillance and detection of outbreak functions at CDC and with food safety agencies at the state and local level.
The report was supported by a grant from RWJF and is available on TFAH’s Web site at www.healthyamericans.org.