WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Creating a single agency to oversee the U.S. food supply would not do a better job of ensuring food safety than the system now in place, a top food safety official told lawmakers on Wednesday.
The discovery of the industrial chemical melamine in animal feed given to chickens, hogs and fish, following an earlier detection in pet food, has led to a push from some lawmakers to consolidate the 15 government agencies that handle food safety under one roof.
“Simply moving boxes around doesn’t solve a problem,” FDA Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection David Acheson told the House Agriculture Committee. But he added: “Could it work? Potentially at some point, sure.”
Acheson admitted the FDA needed a new strategy that it can use to better enforce food safety. He said the agency was in the process of identifying gaps in food protection and determining whether it needs more power from Congress or could simply make changes to existing rules.
“Clearly, we need to make some changes,” said Acheson.
The FDA regulates about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits and vegetables, and the U.S. Agriculture Department is responsible for the rest, including meat, poultry and eggs.
FDA and USDA maintain the current system allows the agencies to have complementary authorities that work well together.
Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has suggested that food safety should be consolidated at USDA, rather than as a separate, independent food agency.
But some consumer groups are skeptical. In a letter to Peterson, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said USDA cannot be trusted to take on the huge responsibility of managing the entire food safety system.
“A food safety agency should be strong and independent, and that is not what we would get if it were placed at that Department of Agriculture, the nation’s booster club for American agricultural products,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for CSPI.
Many Democrats, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees USDA and FDA, favor shifting all food safety responsibilities to one agency.
Melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, has been found in vegetable protein shipments from China that were used to make pet foods. More than 100 brands of pet foods have been recalled, and the pet food was later purchased for use in animal feed.
Investigators so far believe the melamine will not harm hogs, chickens and fish. A final review of the effects on these species is expected in about a week.
USDA and FDA also told lawmakers they believe there is little risk that melamine is harmful to humans.
Kenneth Peterson, an assistant administrator at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, told the committee he had a “high level of assurance” that there was low risk for humans.
“We take this quite seriously,” he said.
Still, Peterson said he felt the United States “just got lucky this time,” noting the ongoing investigation of melamine.
He pointed to FDA’s inspection of an estimated 1 percent of food imports as a problem that could create serious animal and human health issues in the future.
“This is a recipe for major problems down the road,” said Peterson. “The recalls and quarantines we have seen in response to mislabeled, melamine-tainted products are minor to what we could see in the future if this problem is not addressed.”