WASHINGTON, June 8, 2016 - President Obama last year proposed to create a single food-safety agency that would combine inspection programs at USDA and FDA, an idea that had long been pushed by several senior Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois and House appropriator Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
But Shalala, Glickman and Hamburg all agree that the next president should leave the agencies alone. Reorganization is a distraction, they say, and there are more important concerns, including implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act. FSMA, enacted in early 2011, weakened one of the main arguments for a single food agency by expanding the FDA’s regulatory authority over both domestic and imported foods.
Reorganizing agencies also would entail coaxing congressional committees to give up jurisdiction. In the House, for example, the Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over meat inspection and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, while the Energy and Commerce Committee oversees FDA, which regulates most other foods.
Shalala said she would tell the next president, “Don’t waste your time on reorganization. The politics of this are so dicey.”
Hamburg acknowledged that the fractured system was less than ideal. “If we were starting from scratch, no one would design our current system.” But the alternative is worse, she said. Asking Congress to reorganize the agencies “would actually create a terrible scrum where work could not get done, and new legislation would offer opportunities for things that were unhelpful, rather than helpful, to be introduced.”
Still, Hamburg expressed some frustration with what she said was a lack of coordination and focus on food safety in the Obama White House. “We assumed, often mistakenly, that people within the White House were actually talking to each other, and we often found ourselves in the situation where important issues were not being taken up” because there was no one in the White House who was fully knowledgeable or accountable for them.
When FDA was trying to issue proposed changes to the nutrition facts panel, for example, Hamburg had trouble getting a meeting at the White House to brief officials there. The reason: The same advisers responsible for nutrition were also responsible for policy in Syria, Hamburg said. “I resisted saying, ‘I hope there are more experts on Syria than there are on nutrition.’”
The former Democratic officials also provided no support for removing USDA from its joint role with HHS in writing federal dietary guidelines. Shalala, who oversaw preparation of both the 1995 and 2000 guidelines, said the agriculture secretaries she worked with (first Mike Espy and then Glickman) always deferred to scientists.
Glickman acknowledged that industry provide input as the guidelines were developed, sometimes “very intensely.” “I wouldn’t tell you it was total purity in the situation.” But he said, “You’re going to get that wherever you put the function.”
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