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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.

The FDA-USDA working group, meanwhile, has dealt with more pressing matters: It concluded, for instance, that maybe the responsibility for all pizzas should be shipped over to the FDA.

And the bagel dog -- which, for the uninitiated, is a cooked hot dog wrapped in baked bagel dough -- might get a new home.

Even though the FSIS has oversight for corn dogs and sausage turnovers, it decreed in 1979 that a bagel dog was not a "dog," or a meat product because it was a closed-face sandwich. That means the bagel dog has belonged to the FDA. But making it part of the Agriculture Department's regulatory repertoire is under consideration because, surprise, it is primarily a meat product.

FSIS, the meat and poultry regulator (with egg products thrown in) is endowed with several thousand inspectors who are on plant premises daily inspecting animal carcasses.

As Michael R . Taylor , former FSIS administrator, put it: "The Agriculture Department looks at every one of 7 billion chickens for two seconds per chicken," which makes it proficient at sighting defective carcasses, but maybe not salmonella.

The FDA, which covers everything else (including eggs with shells on), doesn't have the same manpower as the UDSA, so its inspections are less frequent. About 10 more agencies have some food-safety responsibility under some 35 statutes. For example, the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service inspects fish.

Stuart M . Pape , former associate chief counsel for food at the FDA and now an attorney at Patton Boggs LLP , said creating a new agency would be overkill if it were only to address jurisdictional issues. And, he said, there isn't much of a case for creating one to address public health and security issues.

"I don't know if anyone would support the Department of Homeland Security as the model," said Pape, referring to the several agencies crammed into one to address security concerns. "You create many more problems than the ones you are trying to solve."

That's why the Dec. 15 meeting, officials of both agencies said, is not the first course, or even the appetizer, to serving up a consolidated food-safety agency.

"This has nothing to do with a single-agency approach," said Jeffrey E. Shuren , FDA assistant commissioner for policy. "We think food-safety oversight works very well in this country."

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