"The skin of a link sausage is FDA, but the meat inside is FSIS.”

From the March issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

Our food system is very safe compared to many other countries, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. The 48 million Americans who get sick each year from what they eat would likely agree. More than 100,000 of them go to the hospital and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Now some political fixes are being considered to overhaul the food-safety system, which, according to some of those experienced with its workings, is unwieldy and inefficient. Food safety is now divided among 15 federal agencies, with the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) the major players.

A recent article in the New Yorker called “Why Did the Chicken Make You Sick?” sums up the current arrangement this way: “The FSIS inspects meat and poultry; the FDA covers everything else. But on the grocery store shelves, it’s more complicated than that. Fish are the province of the FDA — except catfish, which falls under the FSIS. Frozen cheese pizza is regulated by the FDA, but frozen pizza with slices of pepperoni is monitored by the FSIS. Bagel dogs are FDA; corn dogs, FSIS. The skin of a link sausage is FDA, but the meat inside is FSIS.”

In President Obama’s 2016 federal budget, a section on food safety calls for the creation of a new single food-safety agency, removing those responsibilities from the FDA and the USDA. This independent agency would be located in the Department of Health and Human Services and become responsible for inspections, enforcement and responses to food-poisoning outbreaks. 

According to the budget text, “A single Federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of food borne illnesses. It would rationalize the food safety regulatory regime and allow the Federal government to better allocate resources and responsibilities.” This is the kind of plan food-safety advocates have been seeking for decades.

Congress will now consider this proposal, as well as some new pieces of legislation that also address the food-safety system. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has proposed the Meat and Poultry Recall Notification Act, which would give FSIS mandatory recall authority for meat, poultry and some egg products. One problem this would address is the current law’s fuzziness regarding the meaning of “adulterated”; under the new law, the Secretary of Agriculture could issue a mandatory recall of a tainted food whether or not the relevant pathogen was considered an adulterant (not all pathogens are labeled adulterants; for example, Salmonella is not, but E.Coli is). Under this law, stores would have to improve their customer notification practices when a food recall did occur.

Meanwhile, another piece of proposed legislation, called the Safe Food Act of 2015, is sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). Their bill would consolidate authority into the independent Food Safety Administration and provide it with mandatory recall authority, require risk assessments, authorize enforcement actions, improve foreign-food import inspections and require better food traceability.

As these proposals will be making their way through the wheels of the government, it seems certain that the food-safety system will be in the headlines in the coming months.