More on the Safe Food Act of 2007

The Safe Food Act of 2007 (H.R. 1148 and S.654) was recently submitted by Rep. DeLauro (D-CT) in the House and Sen. Durbin (D-IL) in the Senate. Although it might seem like DeLauro and Durbin are responding to the current series of food safety crises, they have been trying to change the food safety system for at least a decade (the Library of Congress’s THOMAS only goes back to 1997). In the 1997 edition DeLauro’s name was on it as a co-sponsor, and in subsequent years she has been the lead sponsor. In the Senate, Sen. Durbin has been the sponsor in each year.

The Safe Food Act calls for the creation of a single cabinet-level Food Safety Administration with a singular mission: safe food. The bill aims to increase the frequency of inspections of food processing plants, create a method to trace food ingredients to their points of origin, and to step up monitoring of food imports. Unlike the current FDA, the administration will have the power to order mandatory recalls of unsafe foods.

Fifteen agencies, unusual boundaries

The current food safety system is a mish-mash of government agencies. Fifteen agencies and over thirty laws govern food safety. In a recent report (PDF), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) described some of messiness:

The food safety system is further complicated by the subtle differences in food products that dictate which agency regulates a product as well as the frequency with which inspections occur. For example, how a packaged ham-and-cheese sandwich is regulated depends on how the sandwich is presented. USDA inspects manufacturers of packaged open-face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with one slice of bread), but FDA inspects manufacturers of packaged closed-face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with two slices of bread). Although there are no differences in the risks posed by these products, USDA inspects wholesale manufacturers of open-face sandwiches sold in interstate commerce daily, while FDA inspects closed-face sandwiches an average of once every 5 years.

Major bureaucratic surgery required

Getting from the current system to a unified food safety organization will be difficult. As mentioned above, fifteen federal agencies play a part in the food safety network, and so major bureaucratic surgery will be necessary. Sec. 102(b) of the proposed Safe Food Act of 2007 lays out the government agencies which would be folded into the Food Safety Administration if the law is enacted:

  1. the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture;
  2. the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the Food and Drug Administration;
  3. the part of the Agriculture Marketing Service that administers shell egg surveillance services established under the Egg Products Inspection Act (21 U.S.C. 1031 et seq.);
  4. the resources and facilities of the Office of Regulatory Affairs of the Food and Drug Administration that administer and conduct inspections of food establishments and imports;
  5. the resources and facilities of the Office of the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration that support–(A) the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition; (B) the Center for Veterinary Medicine; and (C) the Office of Regulatory Affairs facilities and resources described in paragraph (4);
  6. the Center for Veterinary Medicine of the Food and Drug Administration;
  7. the resources and facilities of the Environmental Protection Agency that control and regulate pesticide residues in food;
  8. the part of the Research, Education, and Economics mission area of the Department of Agriculture related to food safety and animal feed research;
  9. the part of the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Department of Commerce that administers the seafood inspection program;
  10. the Animal and Plant Inspection Health Service of the Department of Agriculture; and
  11. such other offices, services, or agencies as the President designates by Executive order to carry out this Act.

That list covers four cabinet agencies: the USDA, Health and Human Services, the EPA, and the Department of Commerce. And thus many high-level political appointees will see their budgets and staff count decrease, two numbers which some see as measures of importance in Washington.

With Congress occupied by the disaster in Iraq, the Farm Bill reauthorization, and catching up on six years of oversight neglect, it’s hard to imagine such a major overhaul occurring this year. However, the E. coli in spinach crisis of 2006 and the current melamine contamination issue are focusing a lot of attention on food safety. The best bet in the near term is to add more co-sponsors to the bill, thus causing the Congressional leadership to pay more attention to the issue. You can help by writing or calling your Representative and Senators and informing them of your concerns about the current food safety system and asking them to sign on as co-sponsors of H.R. 1148 or S.654. The House bill currently has only 15 co-sponsors and the Senate bill has 3 co-sponsors, so there are plenty of lawmakers who have not signed on yet.

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