Neil Mermelstein

Neil H. Mermelstein

As he has in the past two Congresses, Senator Dick Durbin on October 4 introduced legislation—the Safe Food Act of 2001 (S. 1501)—to consolidate all federal food safety responsibilities into a single, independent agency, saying that this has taken on new urgency because of a possibly heightened need to respond quickly and effectively to any acts of bioterrorism or agroterrorism. Subsequently, on October 10, he chaired a Senate Governmental Affairs Oversight Subcommittee hearing entitled “Federal Food Safety and Security: Can Our Fractured Food Safety System Rise to the Challenge?” to explore vulnerabilities that exist, the capability of the federal food safety system to prevent hazards from reaching the public, and how a single food safety agency could better address ongoing and emerging threats.

“Food security can no longer be separated from our national security,” he said. “We must be vigilant and committed to keeping the food we eat as safe as possible.” He said that while the United States continues to have the safest food supply in the world, the U.S. system has been plagued by duplication, overlap, turf wars, and a lack of resources. Currently, there are at least 12 different federal agencies and 35 different laws governing food safety. With overlapping jurisdictions, federal agencies often lack accountability on food safety–related issues.

“In the past, my legislation has been focused on trying to make our food safety system more effective,” Durbin said. “Today, my goal remains unchanged— the only real difference is September 11. Whether it’s undetected E. coli in an undercooked hamburger or a deliberate contamination of our food, we need to fix the system to safeguard against tragedy on any scale.”

Testifying at the hearing were Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture; Elsa Murano of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture; Bernard Schwetz of the Food and Drug Administration; Robert A. Robinson of the General Accounting Office; John Cady of the National Food Processors Association; Peter Chalk of RAND Corp.; C. Manly Molpus of the Grocery Manufacturers of America; Tim Hammonds of the Food Marketing Institute; Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest; and U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro. This article presents portions of their testimony. The full text of their testimony can be found on the IFT Web site at

RAND’s View
Peter Chalk, Policy Analyst, RAND Corp., said that “Agriculture and the general food industry are absolutely critical to the social, economic, and political stability of the U.S., and any deliberate act of sabotage/destruction to this highly valuable industry would be enormous.” Unfortunately, he added, “the agricultural and food industries remain highly vulnerable to deliberate (and accidental) disruption.”

Critical considerations in this regard, he said, include the increased disease susceptibility of farm animals as a result of steroid programs and husbandry practices instituted to elevate the volume and quality of meat production; the large number of agents that are both lethal and highly contagious to animals; the ease and rapidity by which infectious animal diseases are able to spread, reflecting the intensive nature of U.S. farming practices; the increased production of genetically modified commodities; and food processors lacking sufficient security and safety preparedness measures.

Over the short and medium term, he recommended more investment in human, physical, and logistical infrastructure; regular preparedness and response exercises and programs; diagnostic facilities capable of supporting high-level research into virulent foreign and exotic animal diseases; integrated electronic communication systems between emergency management staff and field response personnel; reform of the veterinary science curriculum, with greater emphasis on large-scale animal husbandry and foreign/exotic disease recognition and treatment; more attention to involving local/state veterinarians in USDA’s emergency management system; better coordinated and more standardized links between the agricultural, criminal justice, and intelligence communities; national agricultural insurance to compensate farmers in the event of a major agricultural disaster; and more-effective bio-security, surveillance, and emergency response at food processors and packing plants. especially smaller plants.

“Over the longer-term,” he said, “concrete moves should be encouraged to standardize and rationalize food and agricultural safety within the confines of a single federal agency that has both budgetary and programmatic powers over a wide spectrum of functional domains and jurisdictions.”

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GAO’s View
Robert A. Robinson, Managing Director, Natural Resources and the Environment, General Accounting Office, said that “the current food safety system is a patchwork structure that hampers efforts to adequately address existing and emerging food safety risks, whether those risks involve inadvertent or deliberate contamination.”

The current system, he said, “was cobbled together over many years to address specific health threats from particular food products. The resulting fragmented organizational and legal structure causes inefficient use of resources, inconsistent oversight and enforcement, and ineffective coordination, which together hamper federal efforts to comprehensively address food safety concerns. Many states modeled their organizational structure for food safety on the federal system and thus face the same issues.”

“While we believe that an independent agency could offer the most effective approach,” he said, “we recognize that there are short-term costs and other considerations associated with setting up a new government agency. A second option would be to consolidate food safety activities in an existing department, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Department of Health and Human Services. Regardless, however, choosing an organizational structure only represents half the job. For any single food safety agency to be ultimately successful, it will also be necessary to rationalize the current patchwork of food safety legislation to make it uniform and risk-based.”

In his testimony, prepared with GAO Assistant Director Keith W. Oleson, he described some of the problems that “the nation’s fragmented food safety system” causes: federal food safety expenditures are based on legal requirements, not on risk; federal agencies’ authorities to enforce food safety requirements differ; USDA and FDA implementation of the new food safety approach is inconsistent; oversight of imported food is inconsistent and unreliable; different statutory responsibilities may limit the ability of agencies to coordinate successfully; continuity of coordination efforts is hampered by changes in Executive Branch leadership; and others.

“We believe that creating a single food safety agency to administer a uniform, risk-based inspection system is the most effective way for the federal government to resolve long-standing problems; address emerging food safety issues, including acts of deliberate contamination involving biological agents; and ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply,” he concluded.

Glickman’s View 
Dan Glickman, 1995–2001 Secretary of Agriculture and now Partner in the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, & Feld, L.L.P., said that “An integrated food safety regulatory structure is critical to meeting the new challenges of terrorism we face.”

The U.S. food supply is the safest in the world because the federal food safety system is the best in the world, he said. “But if the current system did not exist and we started from scratch to put together a food safety system, I doubt few of us would design one to look like the structure that has evolved over the last century.”

During the Clinton Administration, he said, the need for much greater coordination across food safety-related agencies led to creation of a number of interagency entities. “While all of these efforts vastly improved the overall federal response to this problem, they suffer fundamental flaws that a consolidated federal regulatory would remedy. First and foremost is central control of resources. While joint planning, communication, and coordination facilitate united responses to food safety, at the end of the day unless control over spending is vested in a central authority, there will remain bureaucratic and institutional obstacles to ending duplication and achieving the efficacy and efficiency of a centralized structure.” He added that “a unified, centralized structure brings with it another asset—a central decision making entity.”

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“As we look at the threat from chemical or biological attack, or other terrorist threats, too frequently agriculture and food receive scant attention. We got a wake-up call last month,” he said, “not only from the savage viciousness of the attack, but also from the new kinds of threats we face.”

He added that while agents like anthrax or botulism affecting the food and water in this country get much of the media attention, American agriculture could also be gravely threatened by outbreaks of more traditional problems such as foot-and-mouth disease and BSE.

As important as it is to reform the federal food safety regulatory structure, he said, “It is perhaps more important to modernize some of the underlying federal food safety statutes.” It is also important to adequately fund the food safety agencies and activities. “We cannot neglect the need to invest in the future of food safety,” he said.

FDA’s Approach
Bernard Schwetz, Acting Principal Deputy Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that food safety agencies are working more closely together than ever before, but “we cannot rest until we have built a strong and credible food safety system that addresses the full range of food safety issues: one that is built on scientific expertise with recognized stature worldwide; that is risk-based and recognizes and responds to new risks; that provides a credible inspection and product sampling presence; that has the same level of protection to consumers from both domestic and imported food; that efficiently stewards new technologies to the market; and that effectively educates and communicates to consumers.”

He said that we must ensure a strong science base for identifying risks; develop, enhance, and maintain surveillance systems that can quickly and accurately identify food safety risks in the human food and animal feed supplies; and manage disease risks effectively. We also need strong risk-based prevention standards to prevent contamination of all human foods and animal feeds over the farm-to-table continuum. We also need education and training programs, we need to verify, and we need science-based methods to measure results so we know how we are doing.

He mentioned some of the collaborative efforts FDA is involved in, including the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet), a project with USDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nine states; PulseNet, a national network of public health laboratories to “fingerprint” bacteria that may be foodborne, a project with USDA, CDC, and all 50 states; the electronic Laboratory Exchange Network (eLEXNET), which provides access to critical food testing data in federal, state, and local food safety laboratories; the National Antibiotic Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), a project with USDA and CDC that monitors emerging resistance to antibiotics in foodborne pathogens; the Fight Bac!” consumer-education program, part of the Partnership for Food Safety Education with the states, consumer groups, and industry; the Web site, established with CDC and USDA; and others.

He said that research and risk assessment are critical to ensuring the strong scientific basis necessary for regulatory programs to be effective. He cited as an example the Joint Institute for Food Safety Research created by HHS and USDA, which coordinates planning and priority-setting for food safety research across government agencies and with the private sector.

He added that while FDA maintains a strong research and risk assessment program, it recognizes that it must leverage both academia and industry expertise as well and has done this through three cooperative agreements or consortia: The National Center for Food Safety and Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology; the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Nutrition at the University of Maryland; and the Center for Risk Analysis.

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USDA’s Approach
Elsa Murano, Under Secretary for Food Safety, USDA, described the food safety responsibilities of its Food Safety and Inspection Service. These include federal inspection of meat, poultry, and egg products; assessing state meat and poultry inspection programs; testing for microbiological contamination, chemical and animal drug residues, pathological conditions, processed product composition, and economic adulteration; conducting compliance and enforcement activities.

She said that FSIS has developed strong partnerships with federal, state, local, and foreign public health agencies and stake-holders to better coordinate the investigation of and response to food safety hazards and outbreaks of foodborne illness. “These partnerships are vital to FSIS’ ability to effectively perform its public health mission.”

“A strong food safety system must have a mechanism for identifying new food safety problems rapidly,” she said. She mentioned some collaborative efforts with other agencies, including FoodNet and PulseNet with HHS and the Foodborne Outbreak Response Coordinating Group (FORC-G) with HHS and the Environmental Protection Agency; a similar group, the Food Emergency Rapid Response and Evaluation Team (FERRET), has been established within USDA to coordinate the activities of its agencies.

“We can do more to examine whether federal food safety agencies can improve the services they provide,” she said, “but this should be done through a careful, step-by-step process.”

She said that she would “continue to pursue enhancements in the safety of our food system by establishing a seamless, science-based process and by strengthening coordination with other agencies involved in the food safety system".

FMI’s View
Tim Hammonds, President and Chief Executive Officer, Food Marketing Institute, said that our current federal food safety guidelines are ill-equipped to deal with today’s challenges. “More than a dozen federal agencies have jurisdiction over various parts of our food supply. There are over 35 laws that govern food safety. This patchwork quilt creates inconsistencies, gaps, overlaps and a duplication of effort that is becoming increasingly unworkable.”

“As these agencies struggle to cope with the many inconsistent statutes and regulations under which they operate,” he continued, “more than 50 interagency agreements have been negotiated in an attempt to bring some degree of order to the process. As this system has evolved piecemeal over nearly a century, it has become primarily reactive rather than working to anticipate and prevent problems.”

He said that FMI is in support of designating a single food agency, not of creating an entirely new agency. “Too much expertise would be lost, too much of our existing credibility would be squandered, and too much time would be wasted if we attempt to create an entirely new agency from scratch. In our view, the best course of action would be to centralize resources, responsibility, and authority within one of the existing agencies then elevate the status of this group to a level appropriate to our new challenges.”

Regarding whether a coordinator would be enough to oversee the existing agencies, he said, “we have an open mind but are doubtful. Although some improvements could certainly be made, there would still be overlapping jurisdictions and gaps.”

“We find it difficult to come up with a simpler or more direct approach than designating a single food agency,” he concluded.

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NFPA’s View
John Cady, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Food Processors Association, said that the current regulatory system governing food safety is sufficient to meet new challenges facing the U.S. food supply and can be improved through stronger communication and coordination among the responsible agencies.

In his testimony, he made three points: First, “Our current food safety system not only works, but works well.” Second, “It is important that any actions we take regarding food regulation neither lessen public confidence in food safety nor compromise the effectiveness of our existing programs. This is especially true in light of the tragic events of September 11.” And third, “We strongly believe that the best way to improve our nation’s already admirable record on food safety is to continue progress towards a unified science- and risk-based food safety policy, including increased communications and improved coordination, rather than focusing on the creation of a new bureaucracy in the form of a single food agency.”

“Industry’s newest priority,” he said, “is to work with the regulatory agencies to ensure that our systems can and will address food security in light of the tragedies of September 11. That is why NFPA helped launch the Alliance for Food Security, the food industry’s effort to coordinate and communicate with federal agencies to ensure we minimize all threats to our food safety system.”

There are ways that the current system could be made more effective and efficient, he said. “We should use risk assessment to target our food safety resources. We should develop consistent and science-based standards for safe food. We must coordinate and prioritize food safety research and education programs by the various federal agencies and take more proactive, preventive approaches. It is vital that we better coordinate the response to foodborne illness outbreaks from the local level to federal agencies. We should eliminate outdated and duplicative regulations and better integrate federal food safety activities with state and local agencies.”

“All of these efforts can be undertaken right now, under existing statutes,” he said. “We do not need to create a new management layer in the form of a new agency to make that happen.”

GMA’s View
C. Manly Molpus, President and Chief Executive Officer, Grocery Manufacturers of America, said that our food safety regulatory system “is not broken, but it does need changes and more resources.”

“The allocation of responsibility among multiple agencies is not inherently wrong or misguided,” he added. “Rather, it reflects the informed judgment of lawmakers and government officials over many decades that different sectors of the food supply present different challenges and thus call for different inspection and regulatory systems.”

He presented four recommendations to improve the current system: First, although FDA, USDA, EPA, and state and local health agencies “already do a good job, they must be afforded the resources that the increasing challenges of a global marketplace demand.” Second, “food safety research deserves high priority and funding.” Third, “duplication or inconsistent regulation cited as reasons for a single food agency can be addressed by simpler and more sensible means.” And fourth, “we must ensure that our regulatory agencies have the resources and tools to effectively regulate imported products.”

“Before we scrap a system that is regarded as the best in the world, we should fully explore strategies to enhance the current system, through adequate funding, better coordination, the best science, and continued innovation,” he concluded.

CSPI’s View
Michael F. Jacobson, Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that CSPI and other consumer organizations have called for a single, coherent food safety statute that is implemented by a single, independent food safety agency.

The patchwork of federal regulatory agencies “is ill-prepared to reduce the millions of foodborne illnesses that Americans suffer each year, much less to deal with threats of intentional food contamination,” he said.

“The terrorist attack on the U.S. has spurred widespread concern about the vulnerability of our food supply to intentional contamination—and the ability of our nation’s food safety system to minimize the risks,” he added. “A stronger, federal food safety system is an essential component of a defense against terrorist attacks on the food supply and also would help to prevent foodborne illnesses due to unintentional product contamination.”

by Neil H. Mermelstein, Editor

About the Author

IFT Fellow
Editor Emeritus of Food Technology
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Neil Mermelstein