WASHINGTON The United States needs to first modernize its food safety system before it decides whether to reorganize agencies that inspect and regulate food, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Monday.
Vilsack said he wants the USDA to focus meat inspection on prevention and containment of dangerous pathogens that cause food-borne illness.
"A modernized system would have as a goal prevention, early detection if it can't be prevented, and mitigation of any adverse impacts if something occurs," Vilsack told reporters on a conference call.
The U.S. food safety system has been criticized in recent years for failing to protect consumers from pathogens, such as an outbreak of illnesses this month related to a strain of salmonella in peanut butter.
Seven deaths related to the outbreak were reported by government officials as of Friday, and 491 people from 43 states had become ill.
More than 125 products containing peanut butter had been recalled after the outbreak. The USDA is not involved in the investigation and recall, but is concerned that tainted peanut butter could get into school lunch and other nutrition programs which the department administers, Vilsack said.
The Food and Drug Administration is in charge of 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including fruits, vegetables, and processed foods, while the USDA oversees food like eggs, red meat and poultry.
Some critics have suggested the government should create a single food safety agency.
"I think before there can be any conversation about merging of entities or a single agency or anything of that sort, you've got to get the foundation right," Vilsack told reporters.
Nominating an undersecretary for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is at the top of USDA's list of positions to fill, Vilsack said.
"We are aggressively working on that this week," he said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Marguerita Choy)