Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have proposed bicameral legislation to split the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into two separate entities: the Food Safety Administration (FSA) and the Federal Drug Administration.
The new Food Safety Administration would remain a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services and would be led by a food safety expert whose appointment would require Senate confirmation.
The proposed restructuring of the FDA came in response to agency shortcomings revealed during the recent Abbott Nutrition infant formula recalls and investigations.
Divide and conquer
While the intentions of Senator Durbin and Congresswoman DeLauro are to be lauded, I believe their proposed solution does not address a major underlying flaw in the US food safety regulatory system.
I am referring to the divided and overlapping jurisdictions of the current FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture.
As now constituted, the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of approximately 80% of the US food supply. The FSIS oversees most of the balance, including meat, poultry, eggs and siluriformes (catfish and other related species).
This split jurisdiction has led to some strange and arbitrary divisions of authority. For example, the USDA oversees inspection of open-faced sandwiches containing meat or poultry, while the FDA is responsible for all other open-faced sandwiches as well as for all closed-face sandwiches, regardless of the filling.
Pizzas containing more than 2% meat are regulated by the FSIS; other pizzas come under the purview of the FDA.
As I wrote in TAINTED. From Farm Gate to Dinner Plate, Fifty Years of Food Safety Failures, “[a] fragmented inspection system is expensive, inefficient and unfair to the industry it regulates.”
In addition to the jurisdictional jigsaw puzzle, the FSIS is in a potential conflict of interest vis-à-vis other agencies within the USDA that are responsible for marketing US food commodities domestically and around the world.
Show me the money
The combined discretionary food safety budget allocated to FSIS and the current FDA for 2022 is $2.766 billion.
The FDA’s share of this budget is $1.6 billion, or ~58% of the total amount.
Yet, the FDA is responsible for regulating ~80% of the food supply. The Durbin/DeLauro proposal does nothing to address the funding imbalance between the two principal federal food safety agencies.
In 1998, a joint committee of food safety experts within the US Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council recommended that the US consolidate food safety into a “single, unified agency headed by a single administrator.“
Several US trading partners have done just that.
Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark, to name just a few, have successfully consolidated their food safety programs. In doing so, these countries have reduced duplication of efforts, streamlined jurisdictions, and removed the appearance of a conflict of interest between agricultural marketing and food safety.
The United States should have taken the advice of its own experts decades ago.
Representative DeLauro and Senator Durbin, the US food safety system is badly broken. What you are proposing is to apply a Band-Aid when what is needed is an organ transplant.
Instead of splitting the current FDA into two separate components, you should be proposing a single, unified, stronger Food Safety Administration. One with enough muscle to claim a seat at the cabinet table.
It’s time to “go big or go home.”
Learn more about a variety of food safety issues in TAINTED. From Farm Gate to Dinner Plate, Fifty Years of Food Safety Failures, now available in digital, print and audiobook editions.