With too many agencies involved in a variety of aspects of food safety, the GAO said "arbitrary jurisdictional lines of authority" diminish the accountability and responsiveness of the federal food safety system. In a response to follow-up questions during a recent House subcommittee hearing, GAO recommended creating a new agency to handle all food safety functions. GAO auditors also detailed the pros and cons of existing agencies in the event that Congress chose to consolidate inspection and other safety responsibilities under either the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
"The food safety laws that we're operating under were drafted nearly 100 years ago," Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), was quoted by GovExec.com as saying. "It is certainly time to modernize the structures that regulate the food supply. This is critical not only to improve food safety, but to protect against threats of bioterrorists."
The current system is a result of ineffective legislative actions that placed food products under the jurisdiction of one agency or another with little logic. According to Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-VA), the FDA inspects closed-face meat sandwiches, cheese pizzas, beef soup and chicken broth while the USDA inspects open-face meat sandwiches, pepperoni pizza, chicken soup and beef broth.
Bryce Quick, assistant administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, attempting to ameliorate the viewpoints, noted that the USDA and the FDA have two different inspection systems. Quick indicated that the separation of areas of jurisdiction has not hindered USDA from preventing the dissemination of hazardous products. "We talk to FDA on a daily basis," he said. "[Mad Cow disease] was a classic example of the cooperation that can take place, and it worked and it's working now. There have been numerous examples of how we are working together."
Emphasizing that interagency cooperation is important, Lawrence Dyckman, director of natural resources and environment at GAO, nonetheless said consolidation would eliminate possible confusion, gaps or overlap. "What we're saying is that we don't see a need to have two agencies basically split the responsibility for food safety," he said, adding that such a separation of functions is not necessary."
While GAO, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups have called for a drastic overhaul of the food safety system, they are skeptical of the likelihood of legislative changes. Dyckman does not believe there will be a change unless there is a major health crisis. "I surely don't hope that we have such a crisis, but to be practical, most government change occurs when there is a crisis," he said.
CSPI's DeWaal expressed confidence that the government would eventually respond. "In the absence of that kind of crisis, it's a long-term proposition, but one that in the long run will prevail. Many countries are moving to unify the food safety system, and the U.S. doesn't want to be the last one to do this. If they want to stay competitive and effective, it is a necessary transition," she said.
Consolidating the two programs under an existing agency may be a possibility in the case of a budget crisis, Dyckman said, adding that GAO favors FDA because it does not have the "stigma of the appearance of a conflict of interest" between the promotion of a product and the monitoring of its safety. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also believes the FDA would make a better watchdog agency.
"I believe food safety should be handled by a health agency," DeWaal said, "not an agency that promotes agriculture."