Evan Vucci/ Associated Press
Many commodity leaders say President Barack Obama’s proposal to consolidate food safety programs into a single federal agency would hinder their ongoing efforts to implement requirements of a sweeping federal food safety reform bill.
In the Fiscal Year 2016 budget he unveiled Feb. 2, Obama asked Congress for authority to submit plans for fast-tracked consideration on reorganizing Executive Branch agencies, with the goal of reducing the size of government.
His consolidated food safety organization would be operated under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The proposal notes more than a dozen agencies are involved in overseeing the safety of the nation’s food supply, governed by more than 30 statutes. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the federal Food and Drug Administration are tasked with more than 80 percent of the food safety program.
The Obama budget describes the current system as “fragmented” and complicated by “disparate regulatory approaches.” For example, FDA oversees shell eggs and seafood, but FSIS handles processed egg products and catfish.
“This division of responsibilities was not deliberately designed, but rather evolved as the Congress passed laws to address specific food safety concerns,” the budget reads.
No estimate was offered regarding the savings that could be achieved through consolidation.
Commodity leaders worry about implementing any broad changes while the industry is still implementing the Food Safety and Modernization Act, passed by Congress in 2010.
“The FDA is in the process of finalizing (FSMA) regulations and moving forward with implementation, which gets the agency involved in regulating on-farm and packing house activities at an unprecedented level, so any proposal to make a major change to how the federal government implements food safety laws at such a critical time is worthy of close scrutiny,” said Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council.
Woods said the Council, which represents Washington, Oregon and Idaho tree fruit, hasn’t taken a position but will watch the issue closely.
Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, which represents half of the U.S. produce industry, believes a reorganization would pose a “major distraction” as the industry works to implement final FSMA rules during the next few years, said spokeswoman Wendy Fink-Weber.
“FSMA assumes there would be no reorganization,” Fink-Weber said.
Sink-Weber said similar proposals have been made in the past, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, and gone nowhere.
National Milk Producers Federation spokesman Chris Galen believes the issue doesn’t merit attention as Congress is unlikely to take it seriously.
“There’s just no appetite for this type of really sweeping change,” Galen said. “We’re still in the middle of dealing with the implementation of FSMA.”
The National Cattleman’s Beef Association also opposes the plan, said spokesman Chase Adams. In a 2009 resolution against forming a single food safety agency, NCBA voiced concerns that restructuring would disrupt food supply monitoring and inspection while imposing “a burdensome process that could threaten the progress made on beef safety and future protection of public health.”
Other agricultural organizations contacted by Capital Press, including the Idaho and Washington potato commissions, American Sugar Alliance and American Farm Bureau Federation, said they’re still evaluating the issue and haven’t reached an opinion.