WASHINGTON -- Leaders of several food industry associations presented Congress last week with divergent views on the need to create a single federal agency to oversee food safety.
Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute here, advocated the single-agency case, arguing that the present system "creates inconsistencies, gaps, overlaps and a duplication of effort that is becoming increasingly unworkable."
Calling for reform rather than restructuring were C. Manly Molpus, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers of America here, and John Cady, president and CEO of the National Food Processors Association here.
Observed Molpus, "Before we embark on radical restructuring of the food safety regulatory system, we should be absolutely convinced that there is no better or more efficient way to address the problems. In our view, the system is not broken but it does need nourishment."
For his part, Cady gave the present system a ringing endorsement. "Our current food safety system not only works, but works well," he said.
Presenting the case for a single agency, Hammonds told Congress, "More than a dozen federal agencies have jurisdiction over various parts of our food supply.
"As these agencies struggle to cope with the many inconsistent statutes and regulations under which they operate, more than 50 interagency agreements have been negotiated in an attempt to bring some degree of order to the process."
However, FMI is not asking the government to create a new agency, but rather to designate an existing agency as the committee with total jurisdiction over food safety. "We believe too much expertise would be lost, too much of our existing credibility would be squandered and too much time would be wasted if we attempt to create an entirely new agency from scratch.
"In our view, the best course of action would be to centralize resources, responsibility and authority within one of the existing agencies, then elevate the status of this group to a level appropriate to our new challenges," Hammonds said.
Molpus told Congress that his association feels that rather than completely realign the regulatory system, some improvements can be made to the existing system.
He recommended four steps to enhance regulation of the food supply, including: Increasing staffing and resources for food safety agencies, especially Food and Drug Administration.
Committing to a renewed emphasis on scientific research.
Better coordination of resources and efforts of the agencies that oversee food safety. * Improving import inspection with emphasis on countries that pose greatest perceived risks.
"The United States has the safest, most abundant and varied food supply in the world," said Molpus. "We have achieved this enviable position not by luck or accident, but through the commitment of the food and agricultural industries and generations of dedicated public servants at the federal and state and local levels."
Cady told Congress that a single policy, not a single agency, is needed.
"There continues to be strong evidence that America's food safety regulatory system ensures that the food products that consumers purchase in their neighborhood grocery stores, or that are delivered to their local restaurants, are safe," he said.
Cady cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show a decreasing trend across the United States in illness due to nine common food pathogens. "We are not convinced that a new layer of management, led by a single administrator, would achieve the goal of enhanced U.S. food safety," Cady said.
"NFPA believes that the way to achieve such improvements is through the creation of a unified food safety policy," Cady said. "This means a truly science- and risk-based policy and system with uniform requirements to ensure that the same food safety guidelines will be followed and enforced."