The frozen pizzas sold in supermarkets illustrate the regulatory quandary: A meatless pizza (left) falls under the FDA's purview, while a meat pizza (right) is the USDA's responsibility.
Salmonella traced to a peanut plant has killed nine people and sickened hundreds, putting the system that safeguards the nation's food supply in the spotlight again. The jumble of agencies and regulations has long been criticized. But now the idea of streamlining it has support in the president's Cabinet.
When President Obama was asked about the safety of peanut butter during an appearance on NBC's Today show earlier this month, he expressed the concerns likely shared by families across the nation: "At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter."
The peanut butter outbreak shows that when it comes to food safety, the government infrastructure is clearly failing, according to Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"Food safety is regulated by about a dozen federal agencies implementing about 35 laws," she said. "It's filled with gaps and cracks and failures to fully cover the problems that we're seeing in the food supply today."
The Frozen Pizza Illustration
Among the items found in most supermarkets' frozen food aisles are frozen pizzas — a perfect illustration of the regulatory quandary. Pizzas with meat on them — and the plants where they are made — are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But plain cheese pizzas are inspected by a wholly different federal agency: the Food and Drug Administration.
It's a system that makes no sense to the new agriculture secretary, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
"I'm suggesting that the time is right for us to modernize our system ... into a single agency so that there is not the risk of something falling through the cracks when it's unclear about which agency has jurisdiction or it's unclear as to whether or not one agency is communicating with the other agency about what they're finding," he said.
USDA Vs. FDA
Right now, USDA, which inspects meat products, covers about 20 percent of the food industry. The FDA is responsible for the remaining 80 percent. Critics say the FDA is dysfunctional and underfunded and has too many other responsibilities, such as regulating drugs and medical devices.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) says the FDA's drug and medical responsibilities should be separated from its food-regulation function.
"If you separate out the food safety functions, you will create a food safety agency, you would have a drug and device agency," she said. "The president would nominate an administrator for each, confirmed by the Senate, [each with its] own budget, its own resources to move forward."
Scott Faber of the Grocery Manufacturers Association says while his group isn't necessarily opposed to a revamped FDA or a single food safety agency, there are other things to consider.
"Much more important is what food safety agencies are doing, not so much who is carrying out these functions," he said.
Faber says there should be safety standards for fruits and vegetables, better inspections of imported foods, and mandatory rather than voluntary recalls of tainted products.
With the agriculture secretary favoring a single food inspection agency, and the White House clearly attuned to the problem, advocates are hopeful that the peanut scare may finally prompt some change.