Bush Administration Proposes Food Safety Merger

WASHINGTON - Homeland security chief Tom Ridge on Thursday told food industry officials the Bush administration is looking at making a single federal agency responsible for food safety, The Associated Press reports.

With the current system divided between the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, Ridge and others question its effectiveness in the event of a bioterrorism threat on the nation?s food supply.

"We have to see whether the system that has developed over the past two decades is the one we need in the future," Ridge said.

The FDA, which oversees the safety for all foods except meat and poultry, has only a fraction of the inspection staff that USDA has, and weaker legal authority, according to the AP. The FDA has about 750 inspectors to check 55,000 food plants nationwide, while the Agriculture Department has 10 times as many inspectors for 6,000 meat processors.

"One of the questions we need to answer is ... whether or not we need multiple agencies dealing with food safety responsibilities," Ridge said. "Is that the way we want to do it, multiple agencies, or is there a better architecture?"

Ridge assured food industry officials that they would be consulted as the administration considers consolidating the inspection system.

Kelly Johnston, executive vice president of government affairs for the National Food Processors Association, said any merger now would be "very disruptive" to the industry, given the heightened concern about security, the AP reports.

"Before we embark on a radical restructuring of the food safety agencies we should be absolutely convinced that there is no better way to proceed," said Manly Molpus, president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, according the AP.

Ronald Hicks, a top official in Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the biggest problem is public misunderstanding about the agencies' differing responsibilities. He said the agencies work closely together.

The General Accounting Office told Congress last fall that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 made it more imperative than ever to consolidate the inspection agencies.

The FDA has asked the food industry to comment on several ideas for improving food security, including requiring tamper-resistant packaging and mandating that produce trucks be sealed. In addition, the FDA is adding inspectors at ports and border crossings to check imported products. Until recently, the FDA staffed just 20 of the nation's 95 import points and inspected just 0.6 percent of the food coming into the country, according to the AP.
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