Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday he favors a single food safety agency, but he has not decided whether it should be located in the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration or an independent agency.
Commenting on the salmonella peanut butter scandal, Vilsack told the USA Rice Federation that the issue of centralization is key because food safety is both a human health and market issue.
"We are the only industrial nation to have two systems," Vilsack said, a reference to USDA's responsibility for meat, poultry and eggs and FDA's responsibility for most other food products.
He pointed out that no children have been harmed by peanut butter purchased through the USDA's school-lunch program.
Last week, USDA proposed to debar the Peanut Corporation of America and its subsidiary Tidewater Blanching LLC, the suppliers of the tainted peanut butter peanut paste, from doing business with the federal government. That move followed USDA's decision to stop buying from PCA.
According to Vilsack, the government would have made that move much more quickly had food safety policy been unified. Vilsack asked the rice growers, "How would you like to be in the peanut business today?" He added that food safety is "about preserving the income opportunities for farmers and ranchers."
Noting that 325,000 Americans are hospitalized every year for treatment of food-borne illnesses and that "millions" of others have food-borne illnesses that do not require treatment, Vilsack said the government must ensure that the food supply is safe. "That's how you preserve markets," he added.
Vilsack's recent statements in favor of a single food safety agency have come as something of a surprise to lawmakers and lobbyists. Agribusiness has opposed the idea vigorously in the past, and lawmakers have found the job of reorganizing the food safety system daunting.
House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who has long advocated a single food safety agency, has proposed a bill that would take food safety responsibilities out of FDA and create a separate food safety division within HHS.
In a letter to Vilsack Tuesday, DeLauro and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noted that the Government Accountability Office has also called for a single food safety agency.
In other remarks, Vilsack said the aged computer system at the Farm Service Agency is one reason that implementation of the farm bill is taking so long, but he declined to say how much money for an upgrade should be included in the final stimulus bill. The House version contains $245 million, while the Senate would provide $54 million.