The "One Big Food Safety Agency" Movement

No one disputes the fact that our food safety net has several gaping holes. Like clockwork, one can seemingly depend on a major foodborne illness outbreak to occur every few weeks. This month it is peanut butter, again, a few months back it was peppers and tomatoes, before that potpies, veggie snacks, canned chili, etc, etc.

Proponents for a massive reorganization of our regulatory agencies continue to make their voices heard. However, few if any of these proponents really appreciate what has caused the dysfunction in our food safety systems. A reorganization of our federal agencies is a dangerous idea that simply will not work and political motives are behind much of the "One Big Food Safety Agency" movement.

While our agencies do seem overwhelmed, actually the solutions are relatively simple; more industry self-control and more oversight by a properly funded and managed government would make a world of difference.

First, industry self-controls should be mandatory, not voluntary! Regardless of the industry, process or commodity, it is the producer that holds the key to food safety. Yet, except for red meat, juice, poultry, seafood and the dairy industry, most of the food industry, including the entire food service industry operates with no formal requirements for a food safety system. Industry self-control does not necessarily mean government should back away from its authority. In fact, mandatory self-regulation would bolster governmental efforts if government were in true partnership with industry and not simply shifting the cost and burdens of public health protection, as seems to be the case.

When operators properly develop and implement food safety systems, they work. Health authorities are no longer reporting juice outbreaks. Statistics show some progress in reducing outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 in red meat, especially at the retail level and there are very few reports of large-scale outbreaks of salmonella from poultry. This is probably the result of government-mandated self-regulation, although it is somewhat uncertain why we see declines in outbreaks in some pathogens.

The record of the highly regulated seafood industry is remarkably good. We do not have nationwide outbreaks associated with seafood. While groups such as the Centers for Science in the Public interest have misunderstood the statistics related to seafood outbreaks, the seafood industry is undoubtedly one of the safest in spite of the fragility and propensity for bacterial growth of its products.

Government, especially the FDA, is terribly underfinanced, poorly managed and lacks political support. Its counterpart, USDA, seems to fare a little better in its budget, but politics at the highest levels in USDA ensures less effectiveness as a public health agency. These two facts are the major reasons we have a weakened food safety system. Opponents of self-regulation should consider that a mandatory self-imposed food safety system with a strong government oversight is a very different model from voluntary self-regulation where government has no jurisdiction, or abdicates its authority.

An example for how things are improving exists today in the produce industry, probably the most hazardous of all food industries. The California leafy greens industry and the Florida tomato industry have adopted self-regulation, and in the absence of federal oversight, state government has stepped in to provide the needed regulatory oversight. We have an excellent developing model where strict governmental regulations of producers are coupled with demands from buyers for validated self-control systems. We need across the board what is happening in Florida and California, and not just in the produce industry. If we had mandatory industry self-control, coupled with strict government oversight, large-scale foodborne illness outbreaks would stop, and sporadic incidence would dramatically drop.

The panacea of creating One Big Food Safety Agency will not solve our food safety problems. It will however make it much worse. As a government manager who has been through government reorganization, I will tell you it takes years for the agency to recover. Generally, the politics that occur are so damaging to morale and the mission of the agency that any meaningful efforts come to a standstill. It is incredibly naive to think that two massive agencies with 100 years of protocols and independence can be merged into a single agency successfully just by an edict in Washington. While the problem of “who inspects what pizza” makes good fodder for those with an anti-regulatory agenda, this archaic problem can be easily solved by an interagency agreement, or memo of understanding between the two agencies.

If Mr. Obama is smart, he will look to make USDA and FDA efficient and accountable and give them the support they need. These agencies have served us very well up until recently when politics and politicians gutted FDA. USDA is a separate problem. USDA has suffered by being an advocate for industry while simultaneously shouldering a serious public healthy responsibility.

Food safety is a critical public health issue, so what are the leaders in public health concentrating on? Take a look at the American Public Health Association, or the Association of Colleges of Public Health. They are bellwethers for what is on the mind of the public health scientists in this country. Few in these groups are seriously interested in food safety. Colleges of public health do not teach food safety as a public health specialty although there may be a lecture or two in the environmental health track. A long-term solution to strengthening the food safety system is for the public health academic community to attract and train more qualified food safety experts and deploy them into both regulatory and industry food safety positions. It is time for the public health scientists to get out their ivory academic towers and embrace contamination of the food supply as a major public health concern.

We should not waste precious resources in a useless and dangerous reorganization of the federal bureaucracy. It is time for public health scientists, industry leaders and government officials to develop an initiative similar to the “President’s Food Safety Initiative” of 1998. The result of the 1998 effort yielded tremendous progress on many fronts, very cost-effectively.

Providing leadership in Washington, sensible tweaking and funding of our existing regulatory systems, and requiring industry to shoulder more weight to protect the public are what we need. Advocating for “One Big Food Safety Agency” is a colossal mistake in thinking and such an effort will guarantee that we fall further behind the microbes in their incessant attack on people through food. Thankfully, President Obama is probably going to be too busy to make this happen anytime soon.

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