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Joining Forces: Obama Budget Recommends Consolidated Food Safety Oversight

Contributed by Natalie Blazer

Every year in the United States, food-borne illnesses strike about one in six people, hospitalizing 128,000 and killing 3,000. Several of these high-profile incidents have shattered confidence in federal safety agencies' ability to competently oversee the nation's food supply. In response, President Obama has asked in the fiscal 2016 budget for the authority to create a single food safety agency, with the goal of increasing efficiency and lessening the likelihood of mistakes.

Specifically, President Obama announced this week his proposal to combine the food safety responsibilities of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under one roof, with the possibility of absorbing another dozen or so agencies throughout the federal government that have some degree of responsibility. The new agency would be included within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which already houses the FDA.

Most safety and inspection duties are currently the responsibility of two agencies: the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is in charge of meat, poultry and processed eggs, and the FDA, which is responsible for the remaining 80% of the food supply. This framework is often difficult for regulators to work through, particularly given that some foods require oversight from both agencies (a frozen pizza with meat topping, for example).

In theory, a single agency could expedite the sharing of information and ensure better coordination, cutting down on delays that might prevent the government from acting. Moreover, a single agency may be better equipped to efficiently utilize taxpayer dollars and increase consumer confidence, and ensure that safety of the food supply does not fall through the cracks of multiple-agency oversight.

The budget proposal could be a subtle admission that previous attempts at tightening control over food safety have not been entirely successful. A number of high-profile food-borne outbreaks involving consumer staples such as lettuce, cantaloupe, peanuts, and eggs led Congress to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010 (signed into law Jan. 4, 2011). The law gave the government broader powers to order recalls, inspect processing plants, and require stricter food safety standards on farms. However, regulators have struggled to put the rules in place when confronted with complaints from farm and food groups.

On Monday, in explaining the need for a consolidated agency, the Obama Administration cited "fractured oversight" that has plagued the dozen or so federal agencies' regulatory attempts in recent years, along with "disparate regulatory approaches." The fiscal 2016 budget calls for consolidation as "an essential step to reforming the federal food safety system overall."

Of course, Obama's proposal is far from a done deal, as the White House will need Congress' approval to move forward with reorganization. Traditionally, the food industry has opposed sweeping changes in safety regulation, out of fear of increased oversight. And the food industry has strong allies in a key Washington demographic - the new Republican Congress - one that could already be reluctant to authorize the bid for partisan reasons. Unsurprisingly, Senators and representatives from the Republican party have voiced concern over the proposal, stating that it "lacks necessary details," while Democrats have backed consolidation efforts.