The Trump Administration recently announced an ambitious plan to consolidate federal efforts in food safety within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Currently, nine congressional committees oversee 15 federal agencies that administer 35 different laws relating to food safety. The administration describes this system as “illogical and fragmented.”
The document explains that “[the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service] is responsible for the safety of liquid eggs, while [the Food and Drug Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services] is responsible for the safety of the eggs inside their shells.” The FDA is responsible for cheese pizzas, but if pepperoni is added, the FSIS will be in charge. FDA regulates closed-meat sandwiches, while FSIS controls open-meat sandwiches.
Similar consolidation proposals have been fueled for decades.
However, the research I conducted for a book about the U.S. Food Safety System suggests that the Trump Administration’s plan faces several challenges, making a major reorganization in federal food safety regulations both unpractical and undesirable.
Why is food safety regulation so complex?
Two laws passed in 1906 led to the strange division of work between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration.
Meat Inspection Act required inspection of all beef carcasses. The Pure Food and Drug Act banned the sale of adulterated foods in interstate commerce.
In the beginning, officials from the USDA implemented both laws. The USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry assigned veterinary-trained inspectors to each meat plant. The Bureau of Chemistry hired laboratory scientists to check for food adulteration.
Franklin Roosevelt transferred the Bureau of Chemistry from the USDA to the Federal Security Agency, which later became the Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA oversees the production of all foods except meat and poultry.
Separately, the Bureau of Animal Industry was renamed to the Food Safety Inspection Service. This service is still responsible for meat and poultry inspections.
As Congress delegated new tasks relating to food safety, concerns about fragmentation of regulatory frameworks grew.
Congress, for example, instructed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to regulate food advertisements, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set pesticide tolerences, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to inspect seafood.
The current system is confusing, say those who favor putting all food safety standards under one agency . This is because the different agencies have inconsistent standards.
They also claim that the overlap of jurisdictions leads to inefficiencies and that insufficient coordination creates gaps in coverage. Also, they worry that so many actors are involved in the process, and this diffuses accountability.
In 1949, under the Truman administration, a presidential commission made the first prominent proposal to consolidate federal regulations on food safety. They recommended that the USDA be given responsibility for food safety, much like the Trump administration.
In 1972, consumer advocate Ralph Nader called for the creation of an organization to oversee food safety. A few years later, the Senate Committee recommended transferring the USDA’s responsibilities for food safety to the FDA.
These are only three of over 20 proposals that have been made by both political parties, including one from President Barack Obama.
Ralph Nader first proposed a consumer agency in 1972. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Why Trump’s plan is likely to fail
The same reasons that the current consolidation effort is unlikely to succeed now are the same as those for which none of the previous consolidation efforts were successful.
The many congressional committees that currently supervise agencies that regulate food are unlikely to support a reorganization that would reduce their powers. In exchange for their political support, members of congressional committees can help constituents and interest groups.
In the same way, associations of industry are unlikely to support any reorganization, which would cause them to lose their relationship with current agencies. Consolidation could reduce their influence and access to agency decisions.
There are also practical issues to consider. The 5,000 FDA food safety officials and the 9,200 FSIS officials would still be under the same administrator. Still, the bureaucratic fragmentation caused by the different jurisdictions, powers, and specializations will not disappear. Consolidation would be impossible without a major overhaul of federal laws and regulations on food safety. This task is both legal and politically complex.
Consolidating efforts to ensure food safety in one agency could create new fragmentation. Transferring the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine program for regulating residues of drugs in beef and chicken to the USDA, for example, would separate the FDA’s veterinary medicine drug approval program.