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Testimony to the National Academy of Sciences on Improvements for US Food Safety System

Testimony of
before the

April 29, 1998

First, I want to thank the Committee for inviting Consumers Union to address this meeting. The Committee’s charge is an important one. Thousands of Americans die each year from a variety of food-borne illnesses that slip through the safety net and millions more become ill. In addition to the human tragedies and misery, there are substantial economic costs in medical treatment and lost work, and lost school time for children. If the system worked perfectly, these incidents could be avoided. If it worked better, they could be reduced. The system will never be perfect. But, there appear to be major inefficiencies in the system which, if improved, quite predictably will lead to significant improvements. You recommendations to the Congress on the scientific and organizational changes needed to ensure food safety can help to bring about these improvements.
Consumers Union has not yet taken a position on exactly how the food safety functions of the federal government, or major portions of them, should be reorganized. It will not do so until it has reviewed the Report of this Committee. However, the evidence of which we are aware indicates that the present organization of the federal government to assure food safety is too splintered and uncoordinated to optimize effectiveness. While some aspects of the system seem to work well, the “system” is not really a system, but a patchwork. It appears that greater efficiency and effectiveness would be the almost certain outcome of at substantial consolidation.
We believe that you should give careful consideration to the establishment of a single agency that carries out most of the standards-settings, all of the enforcement functions and all or most of the direct research functions related to food safety. We also believe that you should give careful consideration to a recommendation that the multitude of statutes be revised and recodified into a single, or at least into a more limited number of food safety laws with more uniform powers of enforcement with respect to the various industries that produce and process food.
There are some aspect of food safety assurance that should remain outside the regulatory mechanism(s).
For instance, the functions of defining, identifying and quantifying food-borne disease are now located outside the food safety regulatory mechanisms. They should remain so. This helps to assure that regulated interests will not successfully lobby to avoid operating definitions and findings as to, for example, what constitutes a pathogen or other contaminant of food. Those considerations should be based solely on health sciences and epidemiology. This arrangement also is practical. Investigation of emerging pathogens and of incidences of death or illness, and the attribution of cause of death or illness to food or to non-food sources, require extensive medical resources that already reside within the Department of HHS (CDC) and would be expensive, impractical and perhaps impossible to duplicate in a second agency.
Risk assessment and tolerance-setting for pesticides residues in food also are appropriately located outside the food safety regulatory mechanisms and should remain so. EPA, while certainly subject to being lobbied with respect to these functions, is less susceptible than would be the mechanism(s) with direct food safety regulatory and enforcement authority. Further, the EPA is beginning to address pesticides on a multiple-exposure, common mechanism of toxicity basis, as contrasted with the old chemical by chemical basis . For this reason, while a food safety agency could set tolerance levels for food, it would have great difficulty in setting tolerances that take into account non-food exposures to the same or related chemicals within the class, without duplicating and conflicting with EPA’s efforts. The same considerations would also apply to residues of veterinary medicines in food, if the direct regulatory aspects of food safety were to be removed from FDA.
Despite the appropriateness of separating these functions from the direct setting and enforcement of food safety regulations, it is difficult to conclude that one dozen different federal agencies applying thirty five separate statutes can achieve efficiency in the assurance of food safety.
It is certain that the multitude of statutes needs to be reviewed, modernized, made consonant to the fullest extent practicable and very substantially consolidated, possibly into a single federal food safety law that provides a unified approach to achieving food safety across production and processing industries unified as to a science-based, human health approach to safety; unified as to inspection approach, as to enforcement powers, as to research capabilities, as to entering into cooperative agreements with state authorities and as to assuring the safety of imported foodstuffs.
Further, administration and enforcement of food safety law could not help but benefit from a significant reduction in the number of agencies that now must coordinated, in order to conduct what the Administration calls “a virtual single food safety agency.” There may be some justification for keeping limited aspects of food safety assurance separate from a general food safety agency; for example, that NASA do its own work to assure the safety of food used for space travel. However, we urge this Committee to work from the assumption that consolidation will reap both efficiency- and mission-related benefits and to examine claims of exception, instead of assuming the efficacy of the status quo.
The current differences in operation between the two primary food safety agencies, USDA and FDA, are not justified they are an artifact of historical development, written by different committees of the Congress and without consistent, underlying principles as to how food safety should be achieved. For example, with regard to inspection, USDA inspectors provide continuous, carcass-by-carcass inspection, even under the new HACCP concept of food safety assurance. But the time between FDA inspections of most food processing establishments is measured in years, not by the space between production units. And, fish inspection is mostly voluntary. There also are major differences between the agencies regarding the ability to assure the safety of imported foods.
The disparities in enforcement powers, too, is unjustified. FDA can seize contaminated food after it reaches market, while USDA can only negotiate a voluntary recall. USDA can only withdraw inspection (“close down a plant”) and/or seek criminal prosecution by the Justice Department, the equivalent of having only the death penalty for all crimes. A more rational, graduated set of enforcement tools needs to be provided for meat and poultry, and the same array of enforcement powers should be available across all food production industries.
Also likely to benefit from consolidation and reduced costs of coordination are the more than twenty agencies now engaged in various aspects of food safety research. There is no single federal food safety research plan. There should be. A unified research plan cannot help but be more efficient and goal-oriented than what now exists. In this context, the committee should look closely at the research now conducted by the USDA, which is divided between food safety and productivity goals, to determine whether food safety will be better advanced by keeping these two categories of research together or separating them. An important question will be whether some productivity-oriented research also produces food safety benefits.
We look forward to the report of this Committee. We hope it will help to reorganize the myriad federal laws and institutions among which food safety responsibility is now divided and to provide a single, unified purpose to the elements of food safety assurance one that is based in science and focuses on consumer health.