By Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) - 06/04/09 04:49 PM EDT
Though the incidence of food-borne illness in this country is miniscule, we are committed to seeking improvements in our food safety system. Continued advancement in the science of food production and processing is a hallmark of our agricultural sector. Likewise, it is useful from time to time to evaluate our system of regulatory oversight, and the legal framework that underpins it, to ensure that to the extent government is involved it is involved in a manner which facilitates rather than interferes with scientific advancement.
Many critics of our food safety system suggest that it is broken because of the myriad of government agencies that claim some degree of responsibility. While it is true that many agencies have a supporting role, there are only two agencies that have primary jurisdiction: the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat, poultry, catfish and egg products; and the FDA of the Department of Health and Human Services, which regulates all other food products in commerce. Both functions were originally housed within the USDA, where research and other technical support still resides.
The FSIS’s mandate to carry out continuous inspection of meat, poultry and egg products processing has enabled the agency to grow with the industry it regulates. The FSIS has likewise been able to utilize the tremendous discretion it has in its authorizing statutes to modify the form and focus of inspection activities as the expansion of knowledge has dictated.
Due to recent incidents, there is increased attention on the performance of the FDA in managing its mission. While the FDA has received numerous supplemental appropriations over the years as well as significant annual increases in its budget to increase its inspection activities, more needs to be done by the agency to refocus its resources on food processing inspection. Instead, the agency continues to rely on state and local government agencies to interpret and enforce federal regulations.
Efforts are now underway in Congress to further broaden the regulatory authority of the FDA and impose more burdens on the food processing sector, yet still little is being proposed to actually hold the FDA accountable for carrying out its existing mission. Of particular concern is the proposal to expand the regulatory reach of the FDA beyond food processing and authorize the agency to regulate on-farm production practices.
While the FDA has an extensive knowledge base regarding the science of food processing, the agency has neither the expertise nor the resources to tell farmers how to farm. The methods of production of fruits, vegetables, row crops and livestock are as diverse as there are numbers of farms in this country (approximately 2.2 million as reported by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service). To expect that an agency with 1,900 field inspectors that are currently challenged by their responsibility to regulate and inspect 44,000 food processors, 114,000 retailers and 935,000 restaurants is able to successfully triple the number of facilities they must regulate and inspect is, at best, naïve.
The USDA has a much better understanding of how farming works in the real world. With the resources at its disposal, the USDA is in a position to work directly with food producers to help them develop production methods that not only enhance farm efficiency, but also further improve food safety and quality for the benefit of American consumers. As an example, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has recently found an innovative way of using their broad statutory authority to facilitate implementation of an industry supported program in which producers agree to comply with a series of regulatory mandates to achieve and promote enhanced product quality and safety. The product of this exercise, while only one possible use of this authority, was the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). Following a September 2006, food-borne illness outbreak that ultimately was traced back to spinach, leafy green growers in California joined with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the USDA to create an enforceable agreement with the goals of creating a program with strong government oversight and involvement; adopting a set of science-based food safety standards that would become a universal set of standards adopted by all leafy green growers in the state; incorporating government inspections to verify compliance with the new standards; and building a program with effective and transparent penalties for non-compliance. At this time, nearly 100 percent of the leafy greens grown in California are grown under the LGMA.
While the details associated with individual marketing agreements such as the LGMA will by necessity differ, the model of the LGMA is one I believe can be replicated throughout the country. The FDA does not have the expertise or resources to do this job with the degree of effectiveness as that exemplified by the USDA and various state departments of agriculture. To enact legislation that imposes this burden on the FDA would divert already limited resources to a task the agency is incapable of performing.
Goodlatte is the ranking member on House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research.