DeLauro seeks separate food safety agency within H.H.S.

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Representative Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, chairwoman of the agriculture subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, on Oct. 3 told an audience at George Washington University she is crafting a bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, that would establish a new food safety administration within the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency would be responsible for administering all food safety issues currently under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration but with more authority and clout. Ms. DeLauro indicated her bill also would create a new post, a commissioner for food safety and nutrition policy, which would be a presidential appointment requiring confirmation by the Senate.

Ms. DeLauro has been a champion of a single food safety agency, which would bring under one roof all responsibilities relating to enforcing food laws protecting the public health. Fifteen agencies currently have responsibilities for 30 laws relating to food safety. The two principal agencies are the F.D.A., which reports to the H.H.S. secretary, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Her current proposal would maintain the independence of the F.S.I.S. under the U.S.D.A. while building a base for more comprehensive food safety reform in the H.H.S.

"I want to be clear. We are not walking away from a single food agency or the reform it promises," Ms. DeLauro said. "I believe that in order to begin fixing our broken food safety system, we must act now, and this is the best way forward. We have further to go, to be sure, but with this first step we will have come a great distance."

She envisaged the drug and medical device safety responsibilities of the F.D.A. being assigned to a renamed Federal Drug and Device Administration as part of the agency overhaul.

Ms. DeLauro said the first goal of her bill would be to address the scattered and diffuse organizational structure for food safety under the F.D.A. The structure was designed years ago and in a piecemeal fashion. She asserted the structure no longer works effectively.

"Today, we suffer from its fragmented legal and organizational structure without enough resources or authority to protect the American public," she said. "Food safety within the H.H.S. is buried beneath three levels of bureaucracy, and even within the F.D.A., the lines of communication and authority require streamlining."

A new food safety administration would raise the visibility of food safety as a top priority, Ms. DeLauro said.

"For too long, food safety has been a second-class citizen within the F.D.A.," she noted. "The public’s interest in curing disease and the corporate interest in developing and promoting new drugs and devices have often trumped concerns about food safety ... By giving food safety its own home, we can, for once, provide the structure, stability and authority for reform to take root."

An independent food safety administration within the H.H.S. also would command a better platform for competing for vital resources and funding.

"Currently, the Office of Management and Budget sees the F.D.A. as just one small part of the H.H.S. budget," she said. "Then, within the F.D.A., food safety must compete with a whole host of other needs for limited funds.

"Finally, the Food Safety Modernization Act addresses a serious vacuum in leadership. Today, there is no high-ranking food safety official in the U.S. government to provide leadership during a time of crisis. To be sure, the F.D.A. commissioner recently appointed Dr. Acheson to be our nation’s new food safety ‘czar,’ but with little new authority, it is a title and nothing more. In reality, presidents choose F.D.A. commissioners to address drug issues. By creating and appointing a dedicated commissioner for food safety with the president’s ear and real authority, we may actually have a champion of public health in charge of protecting it."

Ms. DeLauro said a food safety administration would require enhanced authorities. Discussing recent recalls of contaminated fresh produce, she asserted, "Voluntary guidelines have not effectively prevented food safety problems related to fruits and vegetables. And until we establish mandatory recall authority, the F.D.A. under this administration is not really being serious."

She told the Washington University audience, "The Food Safety Modernization Act, our work over the last few months, and our goals for the future are clear. While the world continues to change, our current food safety system has not. While disease and pathogens evolve, our policies grow obsolete. By creating a separate food safety administration and commissioner for food safety within H.H.S., we can bring our current food safety system out of the past. It is about time."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 16, 2007, starting on Page 29. Click here to search that archive.

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