Too Many Agencies in the Kitchen

Posted March 08, 2011, at 5:35 p.m.
Last modified March 08, 2011, at 6:13 p.m.

The fact that 15 federal agencies oversee food safety should outrage anyone. It is a waste of money — which Congress is focusing on now. Worse, it is a huge threat to the public’s health as shown by recent food contamination incidents.

The General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, was asked to review government agencies for duplication. The first area it looked at was the food safety agencies.

“Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient uses of resources,” GAO reported last week.

Generally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products — and catfish. The Food and Drug Administration oversees nearly all other food, including seafood.

But even these distinctions are blurry.

Here’s one example cited by the GAO: The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety of  eggs in their shell. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service oversees egg products. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services sets the standards for grades of eggs, but doesn’t test them for contaminants, such as salmonella.

The Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service monitors the health of chicks provided to egg farms. Their feed is the purview of the FDA.

Confused?

The result is a food supply that, despite all the oversight, frequently results in recalls, sickness and, sometimes, death. In recent years, there have been large recalls of eggs, spinach, jalapeno peppers and peanut butter.

The peanut butter situation has been the worst in recent years. In late 2008, 20,000 people were sickened and eight died after eating peanut butter contaminated with salmonella.

The recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act is supposed to help. It increases the frequency of inspections of food production facilities and empowers the FDA to initiate recalls (it could only suggest that companies do so previously). But, with dispersed and duplicative oversight, as identified by the GAO, it is unclear if the act will make much difference.

GAO is right that streamlining food safety oversight will save money. More important, it should better ensure that the food Americans eat is safe.

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