Idea of combining food safety agencies gains momentum

Both the Bush administration and Democrats in Congress are treating the creation of a single food safety agency and other food safety issues as potential campaign issues, although there is no indication yet of how serious the issue or related legislation will become.

Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford Tuesday said the split of responsibility between the Agriculture Department for meat and poultry and FDA for most other foods a "curious division" and that he considers the calls for a single food safety agency to be "very serious indeed."

Crawford, who previously was head of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said he considers the discussions about creating a single food safety agency to be "beyond the concept" stage to the point of "Can it be done? Should it be done?"

But despite a multiyear campaign by consumer groups and the introduction of legislation by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to create a single food safety agency, Crawford said, "There's no wildly enthusiastic constituency for combining them."

Crawford's remarks follow those of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who told an industry-sponsored food safety summit in Washington last month that the Bush administration continues to consider supporting the creation of a single food safety agency.

"We have to see whether the system that has developed over the past two decades is the one we need in the future," Ridge said.

Outside critics have said food would be safer if consumers had one agency to call in case of a food safety problem, but food processor groups continue to oppose the merger.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told the same food safety conference he had discussed Ridge's comments with USDA officials and the Bush administration has no plans to take away USDA's current authority.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano tried to reassure members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee of the safety of U.S. food supplies when she appeared before them last month. But she came under tough questioning from Democrats after Murano could not tell Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, how many of the deaths annually from food poisoning come from meat and poultry or from foods under FDA supervision.

Kaptur said, "The fact you don't know is an amazing statement ... an astonishing statement."

Murano also repeatedly told the appropriators that a December federal court decision that the USDA has no authority to close meat plants solely due to the presence of salmonella has not reduced the agency's ability to assure food safety. But Senate Agriculture Chairman Harkin has introduced a bill to give the FSIS that authority.

Food safety expert Caroline Smith deWaal told CongressDaily the court decision took away the "major enforcement tool" the USDA established to reduce pathogens after children died in a Jack in the Box restaurant case in 1993.

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