WASHINGTON (AP) - So, a guy walks into a restaurant. Who makes
sure his food is safe?
It depends on what he eats.
A cheese pizza that arrived at the restaurant frozen? The Food
and Drug Administration is in charge of inspecting it.
A frozen pepperoni pizza? That's the Agriculture Department.
A fresh pizza, made at the restaurant? Both departments would be
responsible for the original ingredients, if the pizza has meat on
it. What if he eats eggs? It depends whether the eggs are inside
the shell, in liquid form or have been processed. Fish? Some fish
is inspected by the Commerce Department.
The FDA bears the brunt of food safety oversight, a mission
called into question in the wake of a massive recall of peanut
products. But at least 15 government agencies have a hand in making
sure food is safe under at least 30 different laws, some of which
date back to the early 1900s.
It's a convoluted system.
"There is no one person, no individual today who is responsible
for food safety," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. "We have an
immediate crisis which requires a real restructuring."
DeLauro and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have been proposing an
overhaul of the nation's food safety structure for more than a
decade. There might now be the political will to do something
following the outbreak of salmonella traced to peanuts blamed for
sickening 600 people and killing at least nine others.
They may be making headway. President Barack Obama's new
agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, said he supports creating a
single, combined food safety agency. It's a major break from his
"You can't have two systems and be able to reassure people
you've got the job covered," Vilsack said.
Such a radical overhaul would be difficult. Many in the food
industry have long opposed any changes, fearing increased oversight
could cut into profits. Allies in Congress have resisted new laws.
But resistance appears to be softening, the result of
high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness from domestic and
foreign food sources.
Industry is open to change, said Scott Faber, a top lobbyist for
the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents large food
and beverage companies.
"The food industry recognizes that we need to give FDA new
powers and new resources to address new challenges," Faber said.
Businesses are concerned about reorganizing the entire system.
The priority should be strengthening the current agencies before
rearranging them, he said.
The old system is an overlapping patchwork of inspections. Both
the Agriculture Department and the FDA inspect shipments of
imported food at 18 U.S. ports of entry. Sometimes, the FDA stores
products at Agriculture Department warehouses, where they wait to
be inspected by the FDA because agriculture employees aren't
allowed to inspect them.
The two agencies also differ on how frequently they inspect
businesses. Meat inspectors visit processing facilities daily in
most cases, while FDA inspects much less frequently.
Most manufacturers of prepackaged, open-faced meat sandwiches,
for example, are inspected daily by the Agriculture Department. But
add a second piece of bread to make it a traditional sandwich and
the FDA takes over. That means inspections probably happen once
every five years, according to a study by the Government
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, recommended two
years ago that Congress re-examine the system. It said 76 million
people are sickened by foodborne illness each year and 5,000 die.
But few changes have been made. And despite the salmonella
outbreak, even the lawmakers urging changes say a streamlined new
agency is unlikely any time soon.
A flurry of food safety bills have been introduced in Congress.
Many would strengthen FDA's oversight rather than creating a single
lead agency. DeLauro's bill would not combine agencies onto one. It
would divide the FDA in two, separating the agency's drug oversight
and food safety duties.
"We have a crisis at the moment. Let's try to address that,"
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