WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama wants to create a new government agency dedicated to keeping the nation's food safe.
The proposal in the president's budget released Monday comes after outbreaks of illnesses linked to chicken, eggs, peanuts and cantaloupe in recent years. More than a dozen federal agencies oversee food safety, and consumer advocates have long called for bringing all those functions together in a single home.
Currently, the Department of Agriculture oversees the safety and inspections of meat and processed eggs and the Food and Drug Administration oversees safety of most other foods. The split oversight is often complicated — the FDA would be responsible for the safety of a frozen cheese pizza, for example, but USDA takes over part of the duties if the pizza has meat on it.
USDA inspects meat daily as it is processed, while the FDA generally conducts inspections every few years. And the two agencies share inspection duties at the border.
The budget proposes consolidating the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service and all of FDA's food safety oversight into one new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. The new agency also would co-ordinate with state and local health departments, a job that is now mostly handled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The budget says the current system's "fractured oversight and disparate regulatory approaches" cause confusion. Consolidation "is an essential step to reforming the federal food safety system overall," Obama's budget says.
The administration said the agency would be based at HHS because food safety and foodborne outbreaks are public health concerns, which are consistent with the larger mission of the department.
The changes are likely to meet opposition on Capitol Hill. Many in the food industry have long opposed a shift, fearing increased oversight, and those companies have powerful allies in the new Republican Congress.
In 2010, Congress passed a sweeping food safety law that gave the government new powers to inspect processing plants, order recalls and impose stricter standards for imported foods. It also requires stricter food safety standards on farms and in manufacturing plants.
That law only applied to the Food and Drug Administration, which is still struggling to put the standards in place after pushback from some farmers and food companies.
The budget proposes an additional $301 million for the FDA to implement that law, though part of the money would come from user fees imposed on the food industry, an idea that has strong congressional oppsition.
The CDC estimates that there are 48 million foodborne illnesses a year from contaminated foods.
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