It is time to rebuild the US food safety system

Several weeks ago, food safety advocate Bill Marler launched his campaign to “Get the ‘F’ out of the FDA.”

Marler proposed that Congress split the Food and Drug Administration into two separate agencies—one with responsibility for food safety and human nutrition, and the other for drugs, cosmetics and medical devices.

While I agree with the need for a separate agency to oversee food safety and human nutrition, I believe Marler’s proposal does not go far enough.

It is time to consolidate all food safety activities at the federal level under a single umbrella.

Here’s why.

Split jurisdiction

At present, responsibility for overseeing food safety is split between two main federal agencies: the FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry, catfish, and egg products.

The FDA is responsible for the safety of all food products that do not contain meat or poultry, for intact eggs, and for all fish other than catfish.

This division of responsibility by commodity has led to some strange and confusing situations.

  • canned foods containing meat or poultry come under FSIS jurisdiction, while all other canned foods are FDA-regulated.
  • pizzas containing more than 2% meat are the responsibility of FSIS; less than 2% meat, and the FDA takes over.
  • open-faced sandwiches containing meat are overseed by FSIS; closed sandwiches are the responsibility of the FDA, whether or not meat is present.

These arbitrary distinctions mean that many food processing plants must answer to two separate federal agencies.

Conflict of interest

The USDA operates under a double mandate.

On the one hand, it is responsible for certifying that the food products under its jurisdiction are safe for human consumption.

On the other hand, the USDA also is charged with promoting US agricultural products both domestically and to overseas markets.

This is akin to having the quality assurance department of a food company report to the head of the marketing department.

We have seen the consequences of this conflict most recently in the FSIS draft proposal to allow as much as one Salmonella per gram of chicken in raw, breaded stuffed chicken products. 


An immodest proposal

It is time to demolish the current ineffective, wasteful, and conflicted system and build a new one, centered on a new Food Safety and Nutrition Agency (FSNA) with a seat at the Cabinet table.

The FSNA would take over all of the food safety and nutrition program activities currently performed by the FDA. In addition, all responsibility for meat, poultry, egg products and catfish would fall under the FSNA umbrella.

The USDA would retain responsiblity for certifying the fitness of livestock for slaughter and certifying the fitness of their meat for human consumption.

At the moment meat or poultry leaves the slaughterhouse, jurisdiction would shift to the FSNA.

This approach would have the benefit of eliminating the conflict of interest inherent in the USDA’s double mandate. It would also unscramble the arbitrary and confusing overlap of jurisdictions between the FDA and the FSIS.

The consolidation of all food safety responsibilities within a single, independent agency is not a new idea.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) was created in 1997 by consolidating into a single agency the food safety components of the Health Protection Branch (then the Canadian equivalent to the FDA), the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand have followed a similar path.

The bottom line

Congress created the current dysfunctional structure over a span of many decades. 

Therefore, it is up to Congress to deconstruct this broken system and build a new one that will work to the benefit of the public it has been elected to represent.

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