Well, here they go again. Another U.S. President has proposed a consolidation of all food safety functions into a single agency, the Federal Food Safety Agency. Nearly every President since Truman has made a similar proposal including President Obama in 2015. Calling the current system “illogical” and “fragmented”, and citing the longstanding recommendations of the Government Accountability Office, the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, President Trump announced on June 21, 2018 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the food safety arm of the U.S. Health and Human Service (HHS), would be merged into a new single agency within the USDA. Under Obama’s proposal, it was to report to HHS.
Predictably, Trump referred to the usual colourful examples: FSIS has jurisdiction over the safety of liquid eggs but FDA has jurisdiction over shell eggs; FDA regulates cheese pizzas, but if there is pepperoni on top, it falls under FSIS jurisdiction; FDA regulates closed-faced meat sandwiches, while FSIS regulates open-faced meat sandwiches.
Obama’s proposal received universal support from food safety advocates such as Marion Nestle and the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, however that’s not the case with this proposal because they perceive the USDA to be too industry-friendly and, of course, they don’t like Trump. More balanced observers are not supportive either. My colleague Professor Tim Lytton, the leading American academic on food safety regulation and the author of an upcoming major text on U.S. food law, quickly claimed that a major reorganization of federal food safety regulation is “both impractical and undesirable”. It is ironic that this cynicism or outright opposition by food safety advocates may serve to undermine this latest effort to finally achieve a long overdue consolidation that, done well, would significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.S. food safety system.
When Canada studied the option of consolidation in the mid 90s after a critical report by our Auditor-General, we faced all of the challenges that Professor Lytton has enumerated: the resistance of institutional and industry vested interests, legal complexity, partisan opposition, and the costs of transition. While the laws and political culture of the U.S. are very different from ours, perhaps there is a lesson or two that could be learned from our experience when we consolidated inspection over the whole food chain under one agency: seeds, feed, fertilizer, all food including fish as well as animal and plant health. We reduced overlap and duplication by putting 16 programs delivered by four departments into the new Canadian Food Inspection Agency, saved $44 million in annual operating costs, finally created a single office to carry out all food recalls, created a single point of contact for consumers, enhanced provincial and federal regulatory harmonization and eventually facilitated significant modernization of Canadian food law.
Looking back, perhaps one lesson that may be relevant to the U.S. was Canada’s decision at the outset to create a non-partisan task force of senior officials to conduct a comprehensive national consultation with consumers, industry and the provinces. These consultations revealed that industry feared that the alternative to supporting a more consolidated system was significant increases in cost recovery, perhaps even a move to the Australian model of full cost recovery. The consultations revealed that all parties were worried about the fragmented system of food recalls. Industry saw the distinct advantage of a single agency to negotiate equivalency agreements to promote market access for food, plants and animals and to challenge the misuse of standards as technical barriers to trade. With the increasing threat of zoonotic diseases, industry and consumer groups saw the advantage of consolidating animal health with food safety. Consultations also revealed that some related activities such as veterinary drug and pesticide regulation and nutrition policy should remain with Health Canada. By the end of the consultations, Ministers were pleasantly surprised to be advised that provinces, industry and consumer associations were all supportive of consolidation.
Perhaps Congress might find strong support for consolidation too if they conduct a full and meaningful consultation with consumers and industry who may well insist that food safety is too important to be treated as a partisan issue again and that, despite what the academics say, finally, this is an idea whose time has come.
Ronald L. Doering, BA, LL.B, MA, LL.D, is a past president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. He is counsel in the Ottawa offices of Gowling WLG, and adjunct professor, Food Science, Carleton University. Contact him at [email protected]