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Plan to create food safety agency worries consumer advocates

President Barack Obama proposed creating a food safety agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.
President Barack Obama proposed creating a food safety agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. TNS

President Barack Obama’s proposal to create a new food safety agency within the Department of Health and Human Services is unpopular with consumer advocates, who warn it would undermine efforts to protect Americans from unsafe or tainted food.

Detailed in the president’s fiscal 2016 budget, which was released Monday, the plan would merge the inspection service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety programs into a single new agency under HHS.

The Obama administration argues that the change is necessary because the current food safety system is too fragmented.

“A single federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership,” the administration says in its budget.

The USDA’s inspectors now oversee meat, poultry and processed egg products, while the FDA monitors most other food. That means a cheese pizza is regulated by FDA, but a pepperoni pizza falls under the jurisdiction of both agencies, in one example noted in the budget.

Consumer groups were taken aback by the proposal, which they said was similar to a proposal floated under President Richard Nixon.

“We think this is premature,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group. “We really have a problem moving food safety into HHS, a massive department that has the health care law to administer and Medicare to administer and all these other competing programs that could dwarf the significance of food safety.”

Further complicating any merger is the fact that the FDA and the USDA approach food inspections differently, Corbo said. USDA inspectors are in the field every day, whereas FDA inspections take place much less frequently, he said.

“Most of the staff at FDA are scientists or folks here in D.C. or in regional offices as professional staff, and you don’t have as many inspection staff,” Corbo added. “It’s the direct opposite at (the USDA inspection service), where 70 percent of the staff is out in the field. So there’s some culture differences that have to be overcome, and unless those are straightened out ahead of time you could really lead into a lot of dysfunction.”

The Consumer Federation of America, an association of consumer groups, is asking the administration to drop the proposal and urging Congress to ignore it.

“Food safety would get lost, and I don’t think it would get the priority that it deserves, or the attention and resources,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the federation’s Food Policy Institute.

Waldrop also expressed concern that efforts to consolidate the FDA’s and the UDSA’s food safety programs would hamper the FDA’s implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act. That law was signed by Obama in 2011 and shifts regulators’ focus to preventing food-borne illness, rather than reacting to it.

“It just seems like the wrong time to do this even if we agreed with the idea,” Waldrop said.

The Consumer Federation of America and other consumer groups support legislation introduced last week by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. That bill also aims to create a single new food safety agency. But unlike the president’s plan, the agency would not be under the umbrella of the HHS. It would be independent, with a director appointed by the president.

Durbin, in a statement Monday, called the president’s proposal “a historic step” consistent with the goals of his bill.

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