For years there has been talk of, even calls for, a single food safety agency … but not from our two food safety agencies. While they’re not there yet, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Jan. 30 announced what could be a first step in that direction.
The two revealed a “formal agreement” aimed at making the oversight of food more efficient and effective by bolstering coordination between the two agencies. The agreement outlines efforts to increase interagency collaboration, efficiency and effectiveness on produce safety and biotechnology activities, while providing clarity to manufacturers.
"I have always been an advocate of a single food safety agency – but also very realistic in recognizing that it will probably never happen," says David Acheson, who was the FDA's associate commissioner for foods and is founder and CEO of The Acheson Group (achesongroup.com), a consulting firm for food and beverage companies with a focus on strategic risk management. He's also a frequent contributor of ours (who wrote our Food Safety columns in January and February).
"The inefficiencies of our current dual regulatory process are evident wherever you look," he adds, "and anything that is focused on resolving that problem is a move in the right direction."
Apparently, Gottlieb and Perdue have worked together over several months in 2017 and "identified several areas where we can strengthen our collaboration to make our processes more efficient, predictable and potentially lower cost to industry; while also strengthening our efforts to ensure food safety."
The announcement said the goal is "to streamline regulatory responsibilities and use government resources more efficiently to protect public health. It aims to increase clarity, efficiency and potentially reduce the number of establishments subject to the dual regulatory requirements of the USDA and the FDA.
"For example, when a facility, such as a canned soup facility, produces both chicken noodle soup and tomato soup, it is currently subject to regulation by both agencies. The agreement tasks both government organizations with identifying ways to streamline regulation and reduce inspection inefficiencies, while steadfastly upholding safety standards for dual-jurisdiction facilities. This can reduce costs on industry and free government resources to better target efforts to areas of risk."
The agreement also commits USDA and FDA to identify ways the agencies can better align and enhance their efforts to develop regulatory approaches to biotechnology. Each is working to fulfill commitments outlined in the September 2016 "National Strategy for Modernizing the Regulatory System for Biotechnology Products" and the more recent "Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Report." These initiatives established a vision for increasing transparency, predictability and efficiency of the regulatory processes for biotechnology products.
The biotech angle might also help with the labeling of products with genetically engineered ingredients. To many it seemed like an FDA issue, but when Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard in mid-2016, it assigned responsibility for creating the program to USDA.
The agreement also calls for the two to increase cooperation on produce safety activities. Under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the FDA coordinates with state and/or territorial government agencies, which will conduct most farm inspections under FSMA’s Produce Safety rule.
It all could be first steps toward a single food safety agency or just a reaction, a thrown bone, to a Government Accountability Office critique from January 2017 that asked some tough questions on why government oversight of food safety is so fragmented.
"Are 30 federal laws administered by 16 federal agencies supplemented by the activities and laws of more than 3,000 state, local, tribal and territorial agencies too many? Can the system be improved?" Acheson asked at the time in his blog.
Acheson also points out it’s not the first time the agencies have tried this. "In 1999, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between FDA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was signed to 'facilitate an exchange of information between the agencies about establishments and operations that are subject to the jurisdiction of both,'" Acheson notes.
"It, too, was intended to increase the efficient use of resources and contribute to improved public health protection," he continues. "And that agreement was based on the re-evaluation and updating of a 1983 MOU on the coordination of inspectional efforts between FDA and FSIS. As in the previous MOUs, the current agreement clarifies that the authorities of neither agency will be lessened, and adds that no financial obligation is made or funds transfer authorized."
So, repeating, the issues to be tacked by these interagency workgroups are:
- Dual-jurisdiction food facilities
- Produce safety
- Biotechnology products
We'll see if any other joint projects result.