update:Feb 5, 2007

Unified Food Safety Agencies

Guest Bloggers
The recent outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infection associated with spinach in the United States has once more raised demands for a unified agency to monitor and control all aspects of food safety in that Country.  By Simon Shane

Jurisdiction conflicts detract from optimal safety

Currently there is a conflict of jurisdiction among the US Department of Agriculture-Food Safety and Inspection Service the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies. This highly artificial state of bureaucratic division is, in the opinion of critics, an inherent flaw which detracts from optimal safety. Naturally the spokespersons and administrators at the USDA oppose any move towards consolidation as this would represent loss in budgets and employees which represent the metric of power in government administrations.
Defra emerged out of the BSE disaster
Following the BSE debacle and further sensitized by the mishandling of the outbreak of the 2000 foot-and-mouth disease in the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair eliminated the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries and established a new entity, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with a separate Food Authority responsible for the entire chain extending from producer to consumer.
Does the US need a new food safety agency?
If a new Cabinet level agency responsible for food safety would be created in the USA it would parallel the Environmental Protection Agency, which since its inception, has been subject to critical pressures and conflicts relating to formulation and oversight of regulations, but has made great strides in protecting the public interest.
The recent E. coli outbreak highlights deficiencies in the current system which involves a range of agencies including the USDA, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control, a component of the Department of Health and Human Services, in addition to state departments of health and agriculture.
As the complex inter-relationship between intensive dairy production and large-scale cultivation of vegetables becomes apparent, difficult decisions will be necessary which may impact the structure of the agricultural industry in California which is responsible for a considerable proportion of the Nation's food supply.
Establishing a new "mega-agency" would have to represent more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Legislators are disinclined to create a new single body responsible for food safety as the USDA, FDA and other agencies have engendered strong support to maintain the status quo.
Four years after the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, involving the merger of components of five previous Departments, citizens and commentators are questioning whether America has achieved a higher level of safety.
A new comprehensive food agency would have to have strong legislative support, and follow a clearly defined agenda which would inevitably conflict with vested commercial and governmental interests in agriculture and the food industry. The administrators of any new entity would have to be unfettered by unrealistic and partisan demands. Some mechanism would have to be developed to free the program of food inspection from the current tyranny of unions which demand job security and are opposed to more efficient science-based methods of ensuring wholesomeness of food products.
Single comprehensive and independent agencies, run according to scientific principles of epidemiology and risk assessment to ensure safety of food are necessary in the context of intensified production systems, emerging pathogens and international trade.

By: Simon Shane

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