NPR: Can the government be trusted with the safety of our food? Critics have long charged that that federal food safety efforts are admired in a bureaucracy of regulations and agencies. Now as NPR'S Brian Naylor reports, the idea of streamlining the process has support in the president's cabinet.
BRIAN NAYLOR: 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.
BARACK OBAMA: At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter.
NAYLOR: The peanut butter outbreak shows that the government food safety infrastructure is clearly failing, according to Caroline Smith DeWaal. She's the director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: Food safety is regulated by about a dozen federal agencies implementing about 35 laws. It's filled with gaps and cracks and failures to fully cover the problems that we're seeing in the food supply today.
NAYLOR: So, I'm in the frozen food aisle of our friendly neighborhood supermarket, in front of a case full of frozen pizzas. As it so happens, they have my favorite - Hawaiian pizza, with bits of pineapple and ham. And since there's meat on it that means the plant where it was made was inspected by the USDA, the Department of Agriculture. Now, if I get this Hawaiian pizza for myself, I'll also have to bring home a plain cheese pizza, because that's the only kind my daughter likes. Now, since the cheese pizza has no meat, it means the line it came off of was inspected by a wholly different agency than the USDA.
It was made under the purview of the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. So, two frozen pieces, two completely different federal agencies in charge of inspecting them. It's a system that makes no sense to the new Secretary of Agriculture, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack.
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.
NAYLOR: Right now, USDA, which does the inspections of meat products, covers about 20 percent of the food industry. The FDA is responsible for the remaining 80 percent. Critics charge the FDA is dysfunctional, underfunded and has too many other responsibilities, like regulating drugs and medical devices. Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut's solution? Separate the FDA's drug and medical responsibilities from its food regulation function.
ROSA DELAURO: If you separate out the food safety functions, you'll create a food safety agency, you would have a drug and device agency. The president would nominate an administrator for each, confirmed by the Senate - own budget, its own resources to move forward.
NAYLOR: 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.
SCOTT FABER: Much more important is what our food safety agencies are doing, not so much who is carrying out these functions.
NAYLOR: Faber says there should be safety standards for fruit and vegetables, and 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 the peanut scare may finally prompt some change.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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