How to overhaul the bureaucracy

Day in and day out, protecting American families from unsafe and contaminated foods remains a primary responsibility of this government, and it is a full-time job.  Case in point: Just last week, we saw the Huntington Meat Packing Co. recall close to 5 million pounds of unsafe beef and veal, almost a full year after it had first gone to market. As it turns out, that was the seventh major meat recall of 2010. We had already seen, for example, over 1.2 million pounds of unsafe sausage recalled on account of salmonella, and 864,000 pounds of meat, on the market since 2008, potentially infected with E. coli. 

And food safety dangers are not restricted to meat alone. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration had to issue a warning about Nestle Toll House cookie dough, which somehow got infected with E. coli and gave dozens of Americans food poisoning. Earlier in 2009, we witnessed a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter, which sickened 500 people all across the country and resulted in six deaths. In 2008, over 1,400 people fell ill from salmonella poisoning that was eventually traced back to jalapeno peppers.

To their credit, our current food safety agencies often do what they can to stem these outbreaks, but their hands are often tied by ancient tools, overlapping jurisdictions, and an overbroad mandate. We have taken a good first step in rectifying these issues with the food safety bill we passed last year in the House, which now awaits consideration in the Senate. But, that bill aside, right now 15 agencies have some jurisdiction over food safety. To my mind, that is 14 agencies too many. A March 2005 Government Accountability Office report found over 70 interagency agreements in place to coordinate activity between food safety agencies, as well as over 1,400 dual jurisdiction establishments between the USDA and FDA. Put simply, a lot of this is just red tape. Each one of these overlapping jurisdictions represents a point of fracture in our food safety system, where unsafe food might well slip through the cracks.

During my tenure as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee, we have increased the FDA’s funding by 39 percent over the past three years. But the FDA, our primary food safety agency, was originally established in 1906 under the Pure Food Drug and Act, and its organizational mission hasn’t been overhauled since 1938, over 70 years ago. In recent years, both the National Academy of Sciences and the GAO have argued that the FDA is outdated and in dire need of reform. Moreover, much of the FDA’s time and resources are devoted by necessity to the drug side of the ledger — regulating pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, devices, and now tobacco — and thus the critical issue of food safety is all too often left on the back burner. 

To my mind, it is time to revamp, consolidate, and streamline our food safety bureaucracy into a single, independent food safety agency. We can start by splitting the FDA into two separate agencies — one focused solely on food, the other on drugs and devices — each with a more specific sense of purpose. Without food and drugs acting as competing priorities anymore, with food safety experts at the helm, the agency will at last be able to consolidate its efforts toward protecting America’s food supply. 

And once our food safety house is in order at this newly split FDA, we can and should move the food safety obligations of the other agencies involved, under the purview of a single independent food safety agency. With all the government’s food safety responsibilities finally under one roof, and with a renewed emphasis on stemming outbreaks and keeping Americans safe rather than catching violators, the new agency would also be given updated tools to fulfill its important mission. 

In order to address the weaknesses in the system that have emerged since 1938, this new food safety agency should require traceability of foods from large farm to small counter, and it should require companies to take increased measures to prevent contamination while growing, harvesting, or packing their products. It should also mandate regular inspections, and demand that imported foods live up to the same safety standards as domestic goods.

The reason for a single food safety agency is self-evident — We need more than a practically 19th century bureaucracy to protect our children from 21st century food outbreaks.

That being said, such innovations as traceability and improved safety measures are good for business as well as for American families. The Florida tomato industry lost approximately $100 million in the summer of 2008 when tomatoes were wrongly pegged as the source of salmonella. Mandating traceability would help prevent these sorts of errors, and allow us to stem food poisoning outbreaks much more quickly and effectively in the future.

Most importantly, Americans will know the food they’re eating, wherever it comes from, is safe. When a dangerous bacterium usually associated with raw meat somehow ends up in a product as innocuous and kid-friendly as cookie dough, it’s clear that protecting America’s food supply has become a complicated, full-time responsibility. It’s past time we forge the 21st century organization we need to keep us safe.

DeLauro is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.