Food safety is getting plenty of play in Washington, D.C., with the White House, Congress and food safety agencies deeply involved. 

A 'super food agency' might not be so super

Larry Waterfield
Columnist

The thrust of all this is to give government more power and authority over testing, laboratories, recalls, traceback and record-keeping.

One criticism is that there are too many food safety players, and that one super food safety agency ought to be created.
Presumably, this would take “food” from the Food and Drug Administration and meat, poultry and some other products from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and make a new super agency.

Other food-related agencies, such as the Center for Veterinary Medicine, the pesticide efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency, the quarantine and plant health people, might be lumped into this same new agency.

This, so the argument goes, will solve all the food safety problems, and focus food safety in an independent agency free from outside and industry influence.

Or will it? 

Actually, it has already been tried, with mixed results. In 2000, the British were being hit with a storm of food safety issues.
 
There was Mad Cow Disease, or BSE in humans, that threatened health. There was foot and mouth disease in cattle. Bird and swine flu. Foodborne illness from campylobacter, e-coli, listeria, salmonella.

All these threats together cost billions of dollars in lost business, the destruction of herds and flocks, the virtual shutting off of meat exports, and the loss of reputation and public confidence in government and food safety measures.

That year the government created a new Food Standards Agency to clean up the mess and restore confidence at home and abroad. The agency is independent of any other agency, with its own staff, budget and director.

But did it consolidate all food safety activity and become a single, all-encompassing food safety super agency? Well, no.

The Food Standards Agency is more of a coordinator, a referee, a central repository of “guidelines and guidance,” auditing and monitoring in support of dozens of other agencies.

It’s these other agencies, mostly local and regional health and environmental authorities, that carry out most of the food safety work.

The FSA does have a big agenda, including food safety and hygiene, nutrition, labeling rules, packaging, dietary guidance, imports, foodservice, meat and seafood, supplements, and new and genetically modified foods.

It oversees the Food Law Code of Practice, issues good practice guidelines, and works with food industries to tailor reasonable practices and rules in areas such as traceability.

Much of what it does is audit and monitor the efforts of local enforcers, the health agencies. The agency is no food safety czar. It is not some food version of the massive Homeland Security department.

Most food recalls are initiated by food companies themselves, although the FSA can issue an “information alert” about a possible recall, and a more serious “action alert” on recalls.

On imports, the inspection of foods is carried out by health authorities at ports of entry, using the guidance and oversight of the FSA.

Food companies are supposed to register with the local health authorities, again under guidance from the FSA. The agency also oversees testing labs.

FSA does not tell farmers and growers, or other handlers, how to grow, handle and market fresh produce and other crops. It does work with industries and the agricultural agencies on voluntary programs of good and hygienic practices. 

The agency monitors these programs. Since 2006, the agency has had authority over food safety “from field to fork.” But this broad mandate does not let it dictate some rigid regulatory scheme for all players.

Again, safety guidelines are tailored industry by industry. Produce does not seem to be a high priority compared to meats, fish and processed foods. 

In fact, in 2009 the agency has not reported any produce-related recalls, incidents or warnings. (It did warn consumers about U.S.-made foods that might contain peanut products from the Peanut Corp. of America, the firm responsible for the salmonella outbreak.)

The United Kingdom, a member of the European Union, is subject to the food safety directives coming out of EU headquarters in Brussels. This is another whole level of regulation, and one full of controversy. 

Italy, France and other nations famous for their foods don’t take kindly to anyone telling them how to grow, handle and serve foods prized around the world.

That smelly cheese, juicy pear, rich pate, vintage wine or spicy sausage may not meet every safety dictate, but hundreds of years of success must count for something.

Yes, the proof is in the pudding, and any food agency — super or otherwise — ought to tread lightly when messing with a rich, traditional and cherished food culture.

That’s true for the U.S. as well.

E-mail lww4@verizon.net

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