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The New York Times over the weekend reported that the fragmented, sometimes bizarre division of labor among various federal agencies that have responsibility for food safety has only gotten worse, which would seem to make an effective argument for a single food safety agency.

In just eight days, the Times writes, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as president of the United States. Obama, the Times notes, “has vowed to cut programs ‘that have outlived their usefulness or exist solely because of the power of politicians, lobbyists or interest groups.’ It would seem that the chances for a single food agency — which has the potential to cut all sorts of bureaucracy — would be better than ever.

“Don’t hold your breath.”

How come?

In part, it is because there are a lot of other issues to be dealt with before food safety infrastructure makes it to the front burner. “In addition,” the Times writes, “some consumer advocates argue that the food side of the F.D.A., in particular, must be fixed before it can merge with the Agriculture Department’s food safety arm.

“’To build the house, you need the same foundation,’ said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutritional advocacy group in Washington. ‘Now you’ve got two legal foundations that don’t mesh well.”
The problem at the F.D.A. is that while it is called the Food and Drug Administration, a vast majority of the attention and financing is directed at drugs. With a limited budget and a huge workload, the food side of the agency has lurched from one crisis to the next.”

The proposal that seems to have the most support would actually split up the FDA into two agencies, with one responsible for drug safety and the other merged with the USDA’s food safety agency.

And, the Times reports, “Beyond the structure of the food-safety bureaucracy, there are all sorts of ideas for how the Obama administration could improve day-to-day oversight.

“For instance, many consumer groups say the F.D.A. should scrap voluntary food-safety guidelines that are issued to the industry and replace them with concrete rules, backed by tough penalties.

“In addition, they say the F.D.A. and the Agriculture Department should have mandatory recall authority if a manufacturer refuses to pull bad food off the market. And they argue that food processing plants in the United States and abroad need to be inspected more often, which requires more inspectors.”

KC's View:
I am as convinced as anyone that the food safety infrastructure has to be overhauled to be made more effective, but I sometimes wonder if the whole mess is simply too complicated to make what is necessary possible.