Meat Industry INSIGHTS Newsletter

990636 Democrats Launch New Attempt For Food Safety Bill

June 24, 1999

Washington - Two dozen House and Senate Democrats introduced a bill Thursday to create a single food safety agency, saying the recent food scares in Europe showed it was vital for the U.S. government to “speak with one voice” on all food safety issues.

The legislation, which would combine food inspectors and regulators from a dozen existing federal agencies, has been introduced three previous times in Congress without success.

This time, a lone Republican -- Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa -- also joined 25 Democrats in sponsoring the bill.

“The political momentum for this is growing,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has repeatedly pressed for a single food safety agency.

“Unless we speak with one voice about food safety, we will lose credibility with consumers,” he added, referring to an EU food crisis over Belgian meat, milk and eggs suspected of contamination with cancer-causing dioxin.

Two U.S. agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Agriculture Department -- have each announced a ban on imports of foods linked to the dioxin contamination. The USDA regulates meat and poultry while the FDA has responsibility for most other foods. Both share jurisdiction over eggs.

As many as 80 million Americans annually fall ill with diarrhea and other symptoms ranging from E. coli in fresh fruits to deadly listeria in hot dogs, according to the government's best estimates. About 9,000 die.

The U.S. food industry has fiercely opposed all efforts to combine regulatory divisions into a single food agency. It contends that better cooperation is needed among existing regulators, not a new bureaucracy.

Durbin said he expected a cabinet member, whom he did not identify, to soon endorse the bill.

But the Clinton Administration is not convinced that a single food safety agency would offer consumers better protection, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said.

The administration prefers to step up coordination of the food safety activities, research and budgets that already exist within a dozen federal agencies, he said in an interview following a speech to a school nutrition meeting.

“These issues of reorganizing the boxes of government sometimes get in the way of what makes a real difference,” Glickman said. “The jury is still out” on whether a single food safety agency would do a better job, he added.

Under current federal law, the USDA must inspect meat and poultry plants daily while the FDA typically inspects other food plants once every five to ten years.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences last year recommended that a single powerful government official be appointed to oversee all food safety issues from farm to table. The group's report said that a cabinet-rank food safety agency was one of several possible ways to achieve the goal of a unified federal policy.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has repeatedly endorsed a single food safety agency in reports during the past decade.

The U.S. government spends more than $1 billion annually on a variety of food safety programs, the bulk of which goes to the USDA for meat and poultry inspections.

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