Reports

Keeping America's Food Safe

A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

March 2009

Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) released their report, Keeping America’s Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which examines problems with the fragmented and antiquated current system and proposes ways to improve the food safety functions at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to better protect the nation’s food supply.

The report calls for the immediate consolidation of food safety leadership within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and ultimately the creation of a separate Food Safety Administration within HHS. Currently, no FDA official whose full-time job is food safety has line authority over all food safety functions. A speedy effort by the Obama administration to consolidate leadership within FDA, followed by Congressional action to create a separate Food Safety Administration, would both ensure immediate progress on food safety and create a platform for long-term success in reducing foodborne illness.

President Barack Obama recently called for restructuring and improving the U.S. food safety system. This report helps provide a road map for the first steps toward revamping the system.

Approximately 80 percent of the food supply is regulated by FDA -- including millions of food producers, processors, transporters, storage facilities, grocery stores, and restaurants -- and the vast majority of known foodborne illnesses are associated with products regulated by FDA. Some recent problems associated with products regulated by FDA include the 2009 Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter and peanut butter products; potential imports of the 2008 melamine-contaminated infant formula and related diary products in China; the 2008 Salmonella outbreak in peppers; and a 2008 Salmonella outbreak from imported cantaloupes.

Some key problems with the current structure of food safety programs at HHS include:

  • Inadequate leadership, prioritization, and coordination. No FDA official whose full-time job is food safety has line authority over all food safety functions. FDA’s three major food safety components are managed separately, hampering efforts to effectively prevent disease outbreaks.
  • Inadequate technologies and inspection practices. Current laws and practices are antiquated. Existing laws date back to 1906 and 1938, and policies are disproportionately focused on monitoring food after it has been produced, instead of trying to prevent and detect problems throughout the entire production process. And there is no system in place to keep inspection practices up-to-date with the constantly modernizing food production technologies and practices.
  • Inadequate staffing and resources. The FDA’s Science Board found the agency is chronically underfunded. While the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports the turnover rate in FDA science staff in key areas, including food safety, is twice that of other government agencies.
  • Inadequate inspection of imports. Only one percent of imported foods are currently inspected, even though approximately 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood Americans consume is imported.

The Keeping America's Food Safe report recommends:

  • Increasing and aligning resources with the highest-risk threats;
  • Modernizing the mandate and legal authority of the HHS Secretary to prevent illness, which would include enforcing the duty of food companies to implement modern preventive controls and meet government-established food safety performance standards;
  • Immediately establishing a Deputy Commissioner at FDA with line authority over all food safety programs, including the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and the food functions of the Office of Regulatory Affairs, as an interim step toward creating a Food Safety Administration; and
  • Working through Congress toward the creation of a Food Safety Administration within HHS, strategically aligning and elevating the food safety functions currently housed at FDA and better coordinating regulation policies and practices with the surveillance and detection of outbreak functions at CDC and with food safety agencies at the state and local level.

The report was supported by a grant from RWJF.