The USDA Could Soon Be the Only National Federal Food Safety Agency
On the heels of many serious recent food-related illnesses America's system of keeping food safe could soon be changing. The president has announced a new plan that would bring all of the federal groups responsible for food together under one roof: The U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Currently, there are two major federal agencies in charge of regulating food safety—the USDA (which includes the Food Safety and Inspection Service), and the Food and Drug Administration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support food safety efforts at both agencies, but is not officially responsible for maintaining safety.
Each agency is responsible for different facets of safety within the food industry. Eggs, for example, are governed by the FDA as long as they're in their shells. If they are open or in liquid form (such as a box of egg whites), the FSIS is responsible for ensuring safe conditions.
But President Trump's plan would eliminate many of the intricate responsibilities of multiple agencies and the "inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources," according to the White House's published proposal.
The previous administration, under President Obama, also attempted to shuffle the federal agencies in charge of food safety into one larger group headed up by the FDA in 2015. While Congress did not grant approval to restructure the agencies at the time, President Trump is seeking the same authority through his "Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century" initiative.
Many public health organizations have previously called for a new, more-unified regulation system over the years, including the Government Accountability Office of Congress as well as the National Academies of Science and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The proposal put forth by the current administration would combining FSIS and the FDA into one agency known as "the Federal Food Safety Agency," according to the Office of Executive Management and Budget.
More than $2.2 billion is spent each year on keeping food safe in America, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The USDA has more than 9,200 employees with a budget of around $1 billion, and the FDA employs 5,000 individuals with a budget closer to $1.3 billion. But the new proposal is not clear what the overall effect would be on the budget or number of employees.
“USDA is well poised to house the Federal Food Safety Agency,” the new proposal reads. “USDA is a strong leader in food safety; has a thorough understanding of food safety risks and issues all along the farm to fork continuum, and many agencies with USDA focus on food safety.”
In addition to regulating food, the USDA houses the Agricultural Research Service, which conducts safety research to influence food safety practices set forth by both FSIS and the FDA. The agency also monitors animals on farms, animal health across the food industry, and the influence of pesticides on crops.
If the president is successful in passing this new proposal, the FDA would become the "Federal Drug Administration," refocusing on regulating prescription medication, tobacco, dietary supplements, cosmetics, and medical devices.
Critics of the new proposal are wary of the decision to place regulatory power solely within the USDA, given that this agency is also tasked by the government to promote and grow the domestic agriculture industry—which could potentially create conflicts of interest, or influence how the agency drafts policy.
In the past, other solutions have been drafted by state representatives such as U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, to create a new agency that is independent from all those currently responsible, according to Food Safety News.
The reorganization of federal food agencies, among others, began in February 2017 when the president issued an executive order to begin the process—according to this proposal, the Office of the President will be tasking Congress to begin considering this initial plan for implementation over the summer.