Sunday, January 11, 2009

Two agencies aren't better than one

Have you noticed that food safety in the United States seems only to become a concern when people get sick? This week it was peanut butter, but there's been botulism in canned foods and melamine in infant formula.

The New York Times had an interesting article on this topic on Saturday, and here are some excerpts from it (to read the full story, click here):
In 1999, the Government Accountability Office (then called the General Accounting Office) issued a report called “U.S. Needs a Single Agency to Administer a Unified, Risk-Based Inspection System.”

“The fragmented system was not developed under any rational plan but was patched together over many years to address specific health threats from particular food products,” the report said. Efforts to address food safety, it says, are “hampered by inconsistent and inflexible oversight and enforcement authorities, inefficient resource use and ineffective coordination.”

It went nowhere. In the decade since, the problems have only worsened. As food imports have soared, the number of inspectors has declined as budgets have been cut. 
The problem, it seems, is that the Department of Agriculture gets a huge hunk of the federal budget, but is only responsible for about 20 percent of our food. The rest falls under the Food and Drug Administration, which concentrates most of its much smaller budget on drugs and devices.
“Food safety is beneath three levels of bureaucracy at H.H.S.,” Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro said recently. “It needs to have its own function.” She added: “There is no high-ranking food safety official in the U.S. government. There is no one accountable.”

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