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Agriculture Secretary Calls for Single Food Agency

Feb 9, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP The failing food safety issue in this country has been making headlines recently with agency scandals and routine, sometimes gargantuan food contaminations.  Now, just-confirmed U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is saying that in the wake of the massive peanut butter salmonella debacle that has sickened over 575, been linked to eight deaths, and resulted in hundreds and hundreds of recalls, the time has come to streamline operations, reported Bloomberg News.

Vilsack is calling for a modernization of the food safety system with the ultimate goal being one single inspection agency to oversee all the food entering and produced in this country, said Bloomberg News, as opposed to the multiple, fragmented, outdated, and inefficient systems currently in place and responsible for keeping the nation’s food supply safe.

Vilsack told Bloomberg news that, “We need a single agency that’s working in a modern framework….  We don’t have that today,” noting that responsibility for some food safety is shared between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—which is responsible for meat and poultry—and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—which is responsible for drugs, medical devices, other products, and about 80 percent of the food supply—and is also present in a number of other governmental agencies.  

The Associated Press pointed out gap in the multi-agency system.  For instance, egg oversight depends on the state of the eggs.  The FDA overseas eggs in the shell, but the USDA is responsible for processed egg products.  Also, said the AP, while the FDA is responsible for inspecting peanuts, some USDA auditors visited the plant responsible for the ongoing salmonella outbreak to review records.

Earlier this month President Barack Obama also said he would be calling for a broad review of the FDA and food safety systems; however, Vilsack said that the one-agency model is at least one year away, reported Bloomberg.  In the meantime, said Vilsack, the agencies responsible for food safety should be collaborating more closely and utilizing technology to improve and speed up operations, according to Bloomberg.

Regarding the peanut butter scandal, the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), the company solely responsible for the historic salmonella outbreak and whose shoddy safety and cleanliness practices as well as its failure to report salmonella contaminations on a dozen occasions and that it was operating a secret, unlicensed facility, has been suspended from doing business with the government for one year by the USDA, has been—with its subsidiary, Tidewater Blanching LLC—recommended for a longer, three-year ban; and has had its CEO ousted from the Peanuts Standards Board, reported the USDA, according to Bloomberg News.

The plan to introduce legislation into Congress for a single food-safety agency is not new and is, as a matter-of-fact, introduced into Congress each year, said Bloomberg.  And while the proposed legislation has its outspoken proponents, the former George W. Bush administration not only never addressed the issue, but opposed the idea each time it was presented.  This, despite that 76 million Americans fall ill and 5,000 die each year from food borne illnesses, reported Bloomberg.

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