Proposal could change who regulates U.S. food safety

A part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget is a plan to bring together the country’s food safety operations into one agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). With the goal of being able to better monitor food quality, this would reshape the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the new agency would combine the food safety responsibilities of the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with other agencies.

As stated in a recent article, the budget proposal noted that “a single federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.”

The USDA’s inspectors now oversee meat, poultry and processed egg products, while the FDA monitors most other food. This means for example that a cheese pizza is regulated by FDA, but a pepperoni pizza falls under the jurisdiction of both agencies, in one example noted in the budget and reported in another recent article.

Consumer groups were taken aback by the proposal, which Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food and Water Watch, called “premature,” in an interview with the Miami Herald. “We really have a problem moving food safety into HHS, a massive department that has the health care law to administer and Medicare to administer and all these other competing programs that could dwarf the significance of food safety.”

According to federal data, 48 million people, or 1 in 6 Americans, suffer from foodborne illness each year. More than 100,000 are hospitalized and thousands die, which officials say will only increase as the world’s population continues to grown and more and more food is being sourced from overseas.

This proposal also comes after the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law with the goal of shifting the focus of regulators to preventing contamination rather than just responding to it.

Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA, declined to say whether such a move would be supported by FDA officials.

“It depends on how it’s done,” he said in an interview with Business Insider.

“While recognizing that food safety is fragmented, he said, the FDA will focus on implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act “while Congress considers what the President has proposed.”

However, according to the budget proposal, “food safety and the prevention, mitigation, and response to foodborne illness outbreaks are public health concerns, consistent with the larger mission of HHS.”

“American families deserve the security of knowing the food on their table is safe,” Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said in a statement about the budget proposal. “Our current food safety system is hopelessly fragmented and outdated, consequently putting lives at unnecessary risk.”

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