The Salmonella crisis that has rocked the peanut-butter industry has brought new calls for the nation’s complex, multi-agency food-safety regulatory apparatus, including meat and poultry inspection, to be brought within a single powerful office. Already Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has issued a proposal in Congress for a single food-safety agency.
Rep. DeLauro has made similar proposals in the past. What’s different this time Caroline Smith DeWaal, who handles food-safety issues for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told MEATPOULTRY.com, is that new Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is behind the idea. "It’s a game-changer," said DeWaal. "It’s the first time one of the cabinet-level secretaries with responsibility for food safety is making a call for a single food-safety agency."
She speculated that what pushed Secretary Vilsack was a realization that USDA, which is the largest buyer of food in the U.S. (it is estimated that USDA provides the food for at least one meal a day for one in 10 Americans, including children), has no food-safety regulatory authority over most of that food. Indeed, the Department has food-safety authority only for meat, poultry, dairy and egg products. "I think the inadequacies of FDA’s program alarmed Vilsack," said DeWaal.
Moreover, she added, the peanut-butter crisis is the second time in a year that an important food USDA supplies to the federal school lunch program didn’t meet federal standards – the first time, in February 2008, was when school-lunch meat supplier Hallmark-Westland was exposed as noncompliant with federal humane-handling regulations.
The DeLauro proposal, introduced in early February, would split the Food and Drug Administration’s food-safety responsibilities away from FDA’s regulation of drugs and medical devices, gathering food safety under a new commissioner who would directly report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the department in which FDA resides. The bill would also put the focus on preventing contamination rather than simply identifying outbreaks. The congresswoman proposed a similar bill last September that was not considered, but times have changed, DeWaal said.
"If there’s a silver lining to this peanut-butter tragedy, it’s that it’s happening at a time when the new administration can really get educated on the challenges of the food-safety issue," she told MEATPOULTRY.com.
DeWaal said she’s feeling optimistic about the chances of a single food-safety agency finally becoming a reality. When a single food-safety agency has been proposed in the past, turf wars have broken out between the various FDA and USDA agencies, including the Food Safety and Inspection Service that handles federal meat and poultry inspection, over who is going to handle what and under which legal authority. DeWaal doesn’t see such battles shaping up this time around.
"When Vilsack made his comments, he said he has no turf position," she said. "I think that was a really smart move on his part. Turf wars erupt if there’s no leadership. He’s giving the White House the opportunity to bring some level of coordination in this, to show some leadership."