Joe Regenstein

I am against a single food safety agency. If we could we start over again from scratch, I would probably be in favor of one agency regulating everything. But we are where we are now because of historical accidents and political expediency, and one always needs a path to get to the end of a journey. A path to a single food safety agency is possible, but it is tortuous and distracting and in the end may not be worth the journey.

Although many agencies have food safety roles, some are clearly peripheral, e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. So let’s look specifically at the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Because meat and poultry were traditionally thought to be more dangerous, Congress mandated that every animal slaughtered had to be inspected by the government. That is a hard, boring job, so more than half of the almost 8,000 USDA meat inspectors are high school graduates or less. And they are unionized, which is fine for them, but it makes all change slow and tortuous if it might mean fewer jobs.

FDA, on the other hand, has fewer than 1,000 inspectors for all the rest of the food supply. But they are all college graduates, and the foods coming out of our food plants are pretty safe. If Americans stuck to only canned fruits and vegetables, we’d be fine. The real problem—beyond meats, which remain a problem—is all those fresh fruits and vegetables coming from farms here and abroad with no further processing. These are really farm issues and not processing plant inspection issues. The food plants that FDA inspects actually are doing a pretty good job. We really need to learn how to deal with the fresh products—this is an area for new research and development. New regulations are not the answer until we have something that companies can do to deal with the problem appropriately.

With regard to meat, we’re dealing with a whole different culture—government is responsible, government tells you what to do, then government inspects the hell out of you to make sure you do it. So what is the incentive for a company to do anything more than it can get away with? Actually, I am always surprised at how much more some companies actually do, and the move to branded products and new technology along with HACCP will certainly increase the safety of the meat supply. Bringing in college-trained FDA-type inspectors is not going to solve the problems. A single food safety agency won’t solve the problems that really exist.

To create a single food safety agency, we need Congress to pass the appropriate laws, but that means working with at least two authorizing committees in each house. FDA and USDA are in separate authorizing committees, so one of the two committees in each house has to volunteer to give up power to another committee—not something folks in Congress like to do.

And are you and they ready to give up having at least some presence on a daily basis in every meat plant? Maybe pepperoni pizza doesn’t need daily inspection any more than broccoli pizza, but with any system, there are problems at the borderline, defining things.

And how do we integrate the two very separate cultures of USDA and FDA? Where does the headquarters go? Which agency keeps all the power? How do you integrate the staffs? That is doable, but I’d bet we would have 5–10 years of unrest. And what happens to food safety in the meantime? Not all mergers work well—integrating two cultures, two work forces, is not an easy process in industry where the new “owner” has much more power and many of the folks in the bought-out company leave. Is that likely in the civil service?

If we look at the whole picture, we realize that, with all its warts, the current system is working. It’s not perfect, but the proposed cure is worse than what is wrong with the system. We need to stop chasing a pipe dream, and get down to the serious business of focusing on how FDA, USDA, and the other agencies involved in food safety can do their job better in ways that really will improve the safety of our food supply. Just because we have the safest food supply in the world doesn’t mean that we can rest on our laurels.

by Joe Regenstein is Professor, Dept. of Food Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Editor’s note: For other views on this subject, see the article “Terrorism Spurs Renewed Call for Single Food Safety Agency,” on pp. 32–36 of the November 2001 issue.