As consumers are inundated with reports of E. coli outbreaks and Salmonella contamination, the U.S. Congress has promised to make food safety a high priority when it reconvenes next year. In fact, some lawmakers and watchdog groups are considering whether to create an independent federal food-safety agency to deal with the issue.Ã‚Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The food safety process is collapsing,Ã¢â‚¬Â Rep. Rosa DeLauro told the New York Times. The Connecticut Democrat is among those championing a single food-safety regulatory body that would combine related parts of the FDA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) into a stand-alone agency. Even Dr. David Acheson, the chief medical officer for the FDAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, agrees that the current system is flawed, telling the Times, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fairly clear that something needs to change.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Among the issues involved is the fact that the popularity of processed, pre-packaged fresh produce is soaring, as is the amount of produce being imported into the country. Recent E. coli outbreaks have helped focus attention on food safety. A September outbreak was related to pre-packaged spinach grown in California while the most recent outbreak, traced to Taco Bell restaurants, involved contaminated green onions. Tomatoes contaminated with Salmonella led to nearly 200 illnesses last month.
In the face of budget cuts and competing priorities, the FDA has not provided adequate oversight of the food industry, critics say. According to the Times, the FDAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has lost $20 million in operating funds and more than 100 full-time employees since 2003.
In 1999, Rep. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, co-sponsored a bill with Rep. DeLauro that would combine the food-safety divisions of the USDA and the FDA into an independent entity. Democrats, who are set to take control of Congress in January, may use that piece of legislation as a springboard to tackle the food-safety issue.