As an eye-opening feature by Wil S. Hylton in this week’s New Yorker made pretty much painfully clear, the federal government’s approach to protecting Americans from outbreaks of things like E. coli and botulism is what you might call a bit complicated. To ensure eggs contaminated with salmonella aren’t working their way into the food supply, one agency monitors the health of farmed chickens, another oversees what’s in their feed, and a third sets overall quality standards, though this doesn’t include testing the eggs themselves for the errant bacterium. Once laid, if sold by the dozen, it’s the FDA’s responsibility; if sold as an “egg product” like whites by the carton, it’s the USDA’s problem.
Two members of Congress say they’ve created a bill to merge the oversight aspects of all agencies involved. The Safe Food Act would make food-safety oversight the job of just one new, massive federal agency. “Right now, our amazingly complex food supply is policed by fifteen separate agencies,” the bill’s sponsors, Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Rosa DeLauro, wrote in a recent Hill op-ed.
Each year, about 48 million Americans get food poisoning of some kind; the Centers for Disease Control estimate this results in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Compounded with the fact that Americans are also getting more of their food from abroad these days, it’s hard to argue with Durbin’s claim: The federal labyrinth regulating food safety “has left us more vulnerable to the risk of foodborne illness.”
This proposed new agency would oversee inspections and enforcement of food safety, handle food labeling, have authority to recall foods, and inspect food imported from other countries. No word yet, of course, on the start-up costs or more detailed specs, but the authors argue it will save money simply by weeding out redundancy among the standards-enforcing agencies involved.