The Trump administration recently released an ambitious plan to streamline federal food safety initiatives in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Currently, 15 agencies across the federal government are responsible for 35 different laws about food safety. They are under the supervision of nine committees in the Congress. The administration has called this system “illogical” and “fragmented.”
“While [the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service] has regulatory responsibility for the safety of liquid eggs, [the Food and Drug Administration in the Department of Health and Human Services] has regulatory responsibility for the safety of eggs while they are inside of their shells,” the document states. “FDA regulates cheese pizza, but if there is pepperoni on top, it falls under the jurisdiction of FSIS; FDA regulates closed-faced meat sandwiches, while FSIS regulates open-faced meat sandwiches.”
The concern over this situation has fuelled similar consolidation ideas for a long time.
However, my study for an upcoming book on how to improve the U.S. food safety system suggests that the Trump administration’s plan faces several obstacles that make a significant overhaul of the federal food safety regulations impractical and unneeded.
Food safety regulations are so difficult.
The enigmatically divided work in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration dates back to two laws in 1906.
The Meat Inspection Act was a law that required inspections of all carcasses of beef. It also imposed the Pure Food and Drug Act prohibiting the sale of adulterated food products in commerce between states.
In the beginning, both laws were put into place by the officials of the USDA. The USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry placed inspectors with veterinary training at each meat production facility. Its Bureau of Chemistry also employed laboratory experts to analyze food for adulteration.
It was in 1940 that Franklin Roosevelt relocated his Bureau of Chemistry, later renamed The Food and Drug Administration, from the USDA and into the Federal Security Agency, which was later renamed The Department of Health and Human Services. Currently, the FDA oversees the production of a wide range of food items, apart from poultry and meat.
Separately The Bureau of Animal Industry was changed to The Food Safety Inspection Service and is in charge of all inspections of poultry and meat.
The concern about regulatory fragmentation increased as Congress allocated new responsibilities relating to the food industry to various agencies.
For instance, Congress instructed the Federal Trade Commission to regulate food advertisements, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency to set pesticide tolerances, and for the National Marine Fisheries Service to examine seafood.
The advocates of placing food safety under one umbrella of one agency have been arguing this system creates confusion as different agencies create different standards.
They also claim that overlapping jurisdictions cause inefficiencies and that lack of coordination causes the coverage gap to open. They also fear the fact that involvement by diverse actors erodes the accountability of politicians.
The first significant idea to unite federal food safety regulations was proposed in 1949 under the Truman administration. In 1949, a commission headed by the president recommended the transfer of supervision of food safety to the USDA, similar to what the Trump administration has done.
In 1972, activist for consumer rights Ralph Nader advocated creating an entirely new agency for consumer safety to supervise food safety. A few years later, a Senate committee suggested the transfer of duties of the USDA for food safety to the FDA.
These are only three examples of over 20 ideas from both parties. One of these was made by President Barack Obama in 2015.
The year was 1972. Ralph Nader proposed creating an agency for food consumers. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
The reasons why Trump’s plan is most likely to be a failure
None of the consolidation attempts were successful for similar reasons, as the current one will likely be unsuccessful today.
The numerous congressional committees that currently supervise agencies responsible for regulating food safety are not likely to be supportive of any change that reduces their authority. The oversight of Congress allows members of committees to assist the constituents and groups of interest to gain the support of their political parties.
Industry associations will also be unable to support changes that would alter their existing relationships with agencies. Consolidation could limit their ability to influence agency decision-making.
Alongside the political hurdles to consolidation, the process also faces practical challenges. Combining all the food safety 5,000 authorities within the FDA and the 9,200 employees within FSIS FSIS under the supervision of one administrator will maintain the disparities in authority, jurisdiction, and expertise that contribute to the current division of power. Effective consolidation would need a complete overhaul of federal law and regulation, a job of staggering political and legal complexity.
Furthermore, combining the food safety initiatives of an agency can result in new types of fragmentation. For instance, transferring an FDA center for veterinary medicine’s programs for controlling drug residues in beef and poultry to USDA could differ from the FDA’s approved veterinary drugs program.
Reorganization, in turn, is expensive and will require years for the various teams of agencies now cooperating to form relationships of trust and cooperation. The costs would need to be paid in advance with a clear idea of if the expected gains will ever be worth it.
Do you want to be all or nothing?
Consolidation doesn’t have to be only one thing.
For instance, some have proposed smaller consolidating in inspections and planning for policies and communications that are more affordable and less difficult to implement.
Yet, Congress has to show much desire to consider any reorganization by the bureaucracy of the federal food safety regulations and even consolidation.