A single food inspection agency: Will it make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore the chatter from Washington and company-types. If a proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency, I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

vomit.toiletThat was valid in 2008, the last time Durbin and DeLauro introduced a bill for a single food agency in the U.S., and still valid today.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois plan to introduce the Safe Food Act of 2015, which would create a single, independent federal food safety agency.

The fragmented Federal food safety system and outdated laws preclude an integrated, system-wide approach to preventing foodborne illness,” it says.

Currently most of the responsibility for food safety lies with FDA. USDA oversees meat, poultry and processed eggs.

The bill would merge food safety oversight into a single agency, providing authority to recall unsafe food and improve inspections of imported food.

“Food safety is a critical public health issue,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “But right now, responsibility for food safety is scattered among 15 different agencies. We need one independent agency focused on the safety of the entire food supply.”

“A single food safety agency would allow us to better focus our resources where the greatest risks lie,” Waldrop said. “The Safe Food Act is a strong vision for the future of food safety.”

Maybe.

Or not.

Countries, states, counties and cities have different forms of restaurant inspection oversight and disclosure. It’s a mess, but there’s no clear evidence that one approach works better than another.

With national food safety systems, Canada went single agency in 1997, but it’s got problems, as do Ireland, the U.K., and others.

I’m not against a single food agency (although the U.S. was founded on a series of checks and balances) but would like to see some evidence for the claims that are going to spew forth in the future, based on the rhetoric of 1998, repeated here:

vomit_here_by_seedpix_at_flickrA 1998 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office claimed the U.S. is lagging behind other countries – countries that have single food inspection systems.

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said,

“Today’s GAO report shows that America ranked eighth out of eight countries — dead last — in terms of national food safety systems.”

There was no such ranking in the report. There was no ranking at all in the report.

Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (CT-3) said,

“This GAO report highlights how effectively a single food safety agency could protect our food supply. … By focusing on the entire food supply chain, placing primary responsibility for food safety on producers, and ensuring that food imports meet equivalent safety standards. …”

The U.S. system already does that. And the report says nothing about how a single food inspection agency could better accomplish such tasks.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says,

“The GAO report also shows that creating a unified food safety program is technologically and economically feasible, and most important, effective in helping to reduce foodborne illness.”

There were no measures of effectiveness for any of the single food inspection agencies, other than whether public opinion or confidence in the shiny, happy new agencies increased over time based on self-reported surveys. A few advertisements could have accomplished that.

There was certainly no mention of any agency reducing the incidence of foodborne illness. The seven countries studied – Canada, UK, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands – said they reorganized their food inspection agencies to improve effectiveness and efficiency; not one said to improve public health and have fewer sick people.

cat vomitThe GAO report — Selected Countries’ Systems Can Offer Insights into Ensuring Import Safety and Responding to Foodborne Illness – did say:

“The burden for food safety in most of the selected countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”

That’s good.

“None of the selected countries had comprehensively evaluated its reorganized food safety system … Most of the selected countries use proxy measures, such as public opinion surveys, to assess their effectiveness. Public opinion in several countries has improved in recent years.”

That’s bad.

In Canada, “At the consumer end of the spectrum, the food safety agency educates Canadians about safe food-handling practices and various food safety risks through its Web site, food safety fact sheets, and the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, a group of industry, consumer, and government organizations that jointly develop and implement a national program to educate consumers on how to safely handle food.”

That’s awful.

To summarize: no rankings, no measures of effectiveness, and not much fact-checking.

Should there be a single food inspection agency in the U.S.? Maybe. But will it enhance the safety of the food supply? Will it mean fewer sick people?