Debating How Best to Protect Nation’s Food Supply

Discussion
Oct 23, 2006

By George Anderson


An editorial in The New York Times says it is time for a single agency to be responsible for the safety of the nation’s food supply.


The paper argues that 15 separate agencies have been identified by the United States Government Accountability Office of responsibility in varying degrees for carrying out the task of protecting the food Americans eat.


The Times calls the role of the various agencies a “historical accident,” which has led to decreased effectiveness and efficiency in an area where neither can be afforded.


Legislation such as the Safe Food Act of 2005 and others, posits the paper, have never made it to a floor vote as such measures have always been held up in committee.


Robert Brackett, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said food poisoning cases related to fresh produce are increasing, according to an Associated Press report.


The agency, he said, “considering all of the regulatory options that we would need” to deal with issue.


Groups such as the National Academy of Sciences have recommended an integrated food safety body to deal more effectively with food supply and safety issues. The General Accounting Office (GAO) has studied the issue and found efficiencies have been gained in other countries where government food agency consolidation has taken place.


Richard Raymond, the Agriculture Department undersecretary for food safety, is on the record as opposing a single agency approach to the issue.


“The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the FDA have a long history of working together very well, and I think it’s been improved even in recent years,” he said.


Discussion Questions: Would a single agency responsible for food safety be more effective handling the task than the multi-agency approach currently
used? Would the potential disruption of shifting responsibilities be too dangerous?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

11 Comments on "Debating How Best to Protect Nation’s Food Supply"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
15 years 6 months ago

One food safety agency can improve food safety but only if managed properly. Coordination and integration of efforts are key and now is the time to move ahead and advance ways to improve food safety. Consumers expect a lot from government and industry to have continuing confidence in the nation’s food supply.

It seems to me that there are numerous learnings from the recent spinach food safety scare. Industry, government, academia and consumer groups should convene and issue a list of recommendations for improving communications, compliance as well as overall food safety based on this experience. Public trust is paramount and it needs to be earned each day.

Dan Gilmore
Guest
Dan Gilmore
15 years 6 months ago
I’m sure almost no Americans – including me – understand how many agencies have some hand in food safety enforcement, and I assume the states also play some role. At sort of an obvious level, I’m sure there is the opportunity to consolidate and rationalize. As always, there will be inertia from the agencies who could see their good thing swallowed up — no different than any other merger. The resistance there is what leads to giant bureaucracies that afterwards don’t do anything. All that aside, what absolutely should happen is legislation, bottled up now as you mentioned, that requires the food supply chain to be able to track its distribution in the same way pharmaceutical manufacturers do. The technology has been there for some time, even without RFID, and the cost to the manufacturers and downstream partners is simply not that great, especially versus the public benefits. The recent spinach scare should be a wake up call – why did it take more than a week to trace what happened and from where? Because… Read more »
Ron Margulis
Guest
15 years 6 months ago
Friends who cover the USDA and FDA for leading publications and news services tell me it’s frightening the political backstabbing that goes on between the two agencies. They also tell me that bickering often results in counter productive behavior over the issue of food safety. It comes down to this, they say — The USDA is constantly trying to expand its jurisdiction to cover non-perishables and medicines, and the Dept. of Health and Human Service, of which FDA is a division, is constantly trying to expand its jurisdiction to cover perishable foods. This is all in separate efforts to gain larger budgets, and results in bad planning and even poorer execution. And, again, it leads to government agencies working at cross purposes. The best thing that could happen would be to throw out both the FDA and the USDA units devoted to food safety and start fresh with a new agency committed to healthy and safe foods and medicines that actually save lives. Whether this would be under HHS or USDA or some other agency,… Read more »
Anna Murray
Guest
Anna Murray
15 years 6 months ago

I am one person who had no idea that food safety is handled by 15 agencies.

It occurs to me that after 9/11, our food supply needs to be clearly and centrally controlled. I don’t know all the complications involved in tracing food contamination. I’m sure it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds on the surface. But it seemed to me that tracing the spinach contamination took a long time. I, for one, would feel much more confident knowing that the situation was not further complicated through the guidance of one, not multiple, agencies.

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
15 years 6 months ago

It would probably be far more efficient to have one agency handling everything from farm to plate, but it’s not going to happen with every government agency involved in a turf war. It is a sad state of affairs when the safety of the American people runs second to bureaucratic nepotism.

Whatever they do, let’s hope they keep it out of the hands of Homeland Security.

In the case of spinach, and perhaps other crops to come, I agree with the comment that technology exists to track the tainted product and it could have been found a lot quicker. However, if the grocer had cleaned up its act in the first place, the incident wouldn’t have happened.

Franklin Benson
Guest
Franklin Benson
15 years 6 months ago

A single agency approach is best only if there is redundancy and no specialization. It is dangerous to assume that such redundancies exist. I think a parallel with transportation would be illustrative: The Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration both work in transportation, but they have hugely different core competencies and specializations. I would not want a highway engineer telling me my airplane is safe, nor an airplane inspector telling me a bridge won’t collapse.

The same is true of food – A meatcutter and a dairy inspector have hugely different skills. Perhaps they could be employed by the same agency, but perhaps there are good reasons that they shouldn’t be too.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
15 years 6 months ago

Ah, what a concept — FEMA for food. Just think of the possibilities. We could all be poisoned over lunch and the government could move aggressively against the threat shortly after the funerals.

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 6 months ago

I never used to think this way, but these days I would add to my list of concerns the danger of continuing to consolidate power in the hands of the executive branch. Several smaller agencies may be inefficient, but there should be ways to increase efficiency while preserving their subject matter expertise *and* continuing to have a hedge against corruption and outright fascism. Never thought I’d even think that thought, but with no end in sight to the “be afraid, be very afraid” politics being used to curtail liberties and justify things that were once considered abhorrent to the American people, I can’t help but worry.

James Tenser
Guest
15 years 6 months ago

The creation of any new bureaucracy is always something to be entered into with circumspection. Infighting between USDA and FDA is shameful, but at least we don’t have an insular agency telling us what to consume. On the other hand, there appears to be an effective competency gap within our government agencies with regard to protecting the public. This results not from absence of technical expertise, but from a breakdown of process. On balance, I’m in favor of shaking up the status quo.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 6 months ago
By the way, for all those who referenced it as a fait accompli, the spinach saga continues here in California. Just last week the identical e coli strain found in the tainted spinach was discovered in cow patties in a pasture next to a spinach field. Seems like they could have figured that one out much earlier. Same thing with BSE, the so-called “Mad Cow Disease.” It seems to take forever for the necessary tests and tracing to be completed. And then it’s usually inconclusive. I have a proposal: Set up an entirely new agency devoted only to the rapid tracing of food safety problems. This force of “Poison Police” would cut through red tape and agency turf concerns to do what’s best for consumers — find the source fast. With my plan, all current safeguards would remain in place, but problems would be “brute-forced” to rapidly nail down sources and solutions. No scientific dilly-dallying. Rapid-tracing of problems would then lead to the next step: Improved prevention and reporting. Taken on a case-by-case and category-by-category… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 6 months ago

Food safety standards cost producers, distributors, and retailers money. Food safety inspections cost money, too. Food safety enforcement can also cause public embarrassment. If national, state, and local governments aren’t willing to pay the multiple prices of food safety, poor performance will continue. It doesn’t matter if there is one agency or 15 or 100 agencies, poor performance is always achievable! Who do consumers trust more, the USDA or Whole Foods? The FDA or Estee Lauder? The federal government or Kellogg’s? The local health inspector or the kosher rabbi’s certification?

wpDiscuz

Take Our Instant Poll

Would a single agency responsible for food safety be more effective handling the task than the multi-agency approach currently used?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...