Food-Safety Agencies Mince Their Meats

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

After years of trying to sort out who should regulate such culinary delights as the bagel dog, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department may be coming to a resolution.

On Dec. 15, the FDA and the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service , the nation's two federal agencies with primary responsibility for food safety, will hold a public meeting on jurisdictional issues that affect the regulation of foods containing meat and poultry.

Despite the nearness of the holidays, turkey is not on the menu.

The two agencies say their goal is "consistency and predictability" with respect to who regulates what. Right now, if you manufacture frozen cheese pizzas, the FDA is your regulator. But if there is meat on them, the FSIS is the overseer. And, if you make both kinds, you could have both regulators in your plants.

The hope is to straighten out, once and for all, who is overseeing pepperoni rolls, natural casings for sausages, closed-faced sandwiches that contain meat or poultry (such as the bagel dog), cheese that has meat and poultry in it, dried soup mixes, pizza, and salad dressings.

"What is a rational way to divide up this universe? What's the basic nature of the food?" asked Philip Derfler , FSIS assistant administrator for its office of policy, programs and employee development. Derfler said the two agencies are trying to eliminate the confusion that manufacturers and consumers sometimes have over whether the FDA or the Agriculture Department regulates a product.

So the two agencies put together a working group of staff members over the past year to divine what might make more sense.

The jurisdictional conundrum highlights an issue that food-safety experts have been arguing for years: Why do so many agencies have a piece of the food regulation pie? And should there be a single food regulator responsible for inspection, ensuring safe practices by the manufacturer, labeling and enforcement?

"We don't need a tune-up; we need an overhaul," said Caroline Smith DeWaal , director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest , a nonprofit group that advocates good nutrition and food safety. "All this [summit meeting] does is take away the most egregious examples that will result in a minor rationalization of the food safety system."

DeWaal has been beating the drum since 1997 to create a single agency. She said threats of food-related terrorism, new strains of foodborne bacteria, increasing food imports, and the disparity of inspection and budget resources between the two agencies would be best solved by creating one agency. (She says any change should include extending to turkeys the USDA-required checks for salmonella in chicken and beef.)

The General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office ) has supported the idea of a single food agency since the early 1990s. A 1998 study by the National Academy of Sciences called for a single official to oversee food safety at the federal level.

Legislative efforts for change, led by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), have met with resistance from some of the major food lobbies. The Food Products Association , which represents the manufacturers of packaged foods and beverages, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association are comfortable with the current regulatory regime, according to both groups.

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