Watch­ing what we eat

Con­sol­i­dat­ing fed­eral agen­cies to over­see and pro­tect our food sup­ply is an idea whose time has come.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion -

This spring, thou­sands of dogs and cats got sick from eat­ing pet food made with tainted wheat prod­ucts from China. Pic­tures of sad pup­pies hooked to IVs filled news­pa­pers. In short or­der, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) called for a new, con­sol­i­dated fed­eral agency to over­see food safety in the United States.

At first glance, the chain of events looked a lot like the head­line-driven rush to ac­tion that spawned the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, glom­ming dozens of en­ti­ties un­der one roof and ham­string­ing a lot of them in the process (think FEMA). Con­sol­i­dat­ing de­part­ments is not al­ways the best way to en­sure good gov­er­nance.

But when it comes to en­sur­ing food safety — cur­rently han­dled by an over­lap­ping bu­reau­cratic night­mare in need of “fun­da­men­tal re­ex­am­i­na­tion,” ac­cord­ing to the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice — it may make sense to cen­tral­ize.

Durbin and DeLauro have been on the case for more than 10 years, and with good rea­son. The reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern food safety are woe­fully out of date, writ­ten be­fore the U.S. im­ported much of its food and be­fore the ad­vent of pro­cessed tasties made of mys­te­ri­ous stuff like “wheat gluten.” In the early 20th cen­tury, a Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion in­spec­tor could look at a bushel of ap­ples and tell by sight if they were rot­ten or dis­eased. An in­spec­tor to­day would be hard-pressed to look at a pile of kib­ble and tell much of any­thing.

In Jan­uary, the GAO added food safety to its list of high-risk fed­eral pro­grams, not­ing that it’s scat­tered across 15 poorly co­or­di­nated agen­cies, in­clud­ing the FDA, the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion and — nat­u­rally — the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity. Less than 1% of food im­ports were in­spected in 2006. The FDA, which bears 80% of the food safety bur­den, ac­counts for just 24% of food safety ex­pen­di­tures. It has no power to re­quire re­calls (that’s up to in­dus­try) and has lit­tle abil­ity to track re­calls al­ready in progress. Af­ter the pet food de­ba­cle, Pres­i­dent Bush ap­pointed Dr. David Ach­e­son to be FDA “food czar,” but few ex­pect sub­stan­tive re­sults from the move.

The Safe Food Act would cre­ate a sin­gle agency that, un­like the FDA, could con­cen­trate solely on food safety — stan­dard­iz­ing in­spec­tion and re­call stan­dards across all food types and mar­kets, more ag­gres­sively screen­ing im­ports and so on. It’s a wel­come ac­knowl­edge­ment that food safety needs to adapt to the 21st cen­tury.

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