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Trump calls for single food safety agency

Shutterstock White House in Washington DC on bright warm day
One can criticize the current fragmented system, but Congress created it, not FDA and/or USDA. So how does one think Congress can wisely create a solid single food safety agency?

Well, OK, technically the announcement came from the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) director Mick Mulvaney, but everyone who knows Washington, D.C., knows OMB is the policy branch of the White House and Mulvaney would never make an announcement as broad sweeping and controversial as this one without Number One’s support.

But like most every President before him, Trump followed political precedents. See, almost all Presidents ask for a single food safety agency, it helps them appear to be sensitive to this area, while all along they let the chair for the undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture remain empty more than filled.

It also helps keep those consumer groups who are upset with the shortfalls in the federal government’s quest to keep us safe from foodborne illnesses somewhat mollified and quiet.

(See, I, as your President, really care, hugely, and even though it is impossible to do these days, I will propose a single food safety agency because, to quote Mulvaney, “wouldn’t it be nice to have one place where people can go to get answers, to get results, to get permits and to deal with regulatory affairs?” )

Democrats propose a single food safety agency housed at the Food & Drug Administration, Republicans propose a single food safety agency sitting in the Jamie Whitten Building, or USDA.

One of my very last public functions, while the undersecretary for food safety at USDA, was to be a part of a three-person panel at a conference at the National Institute of Health. I do not remember the topic, but I do remember a question being raised about a single food safety agency.

The other two panelists were Caroline Smith-DeWaal, then with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and Mike Taylor, then known as the food czar at FDA. Taylor had been acting undersecretary for food safety at USDA when he declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant in ground beef. So, he had been in charge for food safety in both agencies.

I was on record as being opposed to the change. Taylor was all for it.

I asked him publicly where he would position a single food safety agency, and he replied “anywhere BUT the USDA.”

Maybe he knows something that should be shared with the OMB?

In my opinion, a single food safety agency would not bring about the ballyhooed efficiencies, but might instead further endanger our health as employees tried to adjust and blend in with each other.

FDA educates, but does not really regulate or inspect.

USDA regulates by daily inspection and the threat of withdrawing the inspection work force, thus shuttering a plant.

FDA politely asks for a recall, and sometimes it takes months to get a company to comply, the relatively recent I.M. Healthy Original Creamy Soy Nut Butter fiasco comes to mind where you could, and people did, still buy the E. coli-laced product on Amazon months after the recall was announced.

USDA forces a recall in hours and has never been refused.

FDA does not name companies, or retail outlets, to protect the “trade secrets” as opposed to protecting our health. USDA, since 2008, names the companies and the stores where product was sold.

USDA does egg products, because the good guys in that industry wanted protection from corner cutters that were doing a less than stellar job. USDA does poultry for the same reason; the good guys who take food safety seriously wanted the ones that did not out of business or cleaned up.

USDA does catfish because….OK, it is not about food safety.

USDA does not do bison because they were not a player in the meat markets when the Federal Meat Inspection Act was passed that said goats, sheep, cattle, pigs and horses were to fall under federal inspection.

One can criticize the current fragmented system, but Congress created it, not FDA and/or USDA. So how does one think Congress can wisely create a solid single food safety agency?

I never liked people who whine and complain but do not offer up any helpful suggestions; so here are mine.

I agree that the system is fragmented and makes little sense, but it can be fixed.

To do that, and remain somewhat budget neutral, give USDA all living animals and animal products for daily inspection, including imports.

This would include all dairy product, all egg products and all fishes and seafood. Most importantly to rational people, give USDA bison, that four-legged creature that looks more like a steer on steroids than a catfish does.

To keep this budget neutral and to make sense that is explainable to Congress and those pushing for change, stop re-inspection of meat products that have already been inspected and passed by USDA that are just a part of a bigger product.

This would put pizzas, soups and baby products that contain meat or poultry products all in the hands of FDA and would stop the expensive daily inspection of products that may poison us with botulism because of inadequate heating but will not cause an E coli or salmonella infection.

It also would eliminate the ridiculous, unexplainable FDA vs. USDA inspection of open-faced sandwiches vs. close-faced sandwiches and corn dogs vs. bagel dogs.

What are the chances of either my idea or the OMB’s idea actually happening? Probably less than your chances of contracting a life-threatening foodborne illness.

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