WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Food-industry representatives last week endorsed a decision by President Clinton to create a council to coordinate federal food-safety efforts rather than a "czar" with vast regulatory and enforcement powers.
Clinton signed an executive order last week establishing a Council on Food Safety to coordinate enforcement, education and research activities by the Agriculture and Commerce Departments, Food and Drug Administration and other agencies charged with overseeing the nation's food supply.
The council was charged with developing a uniform "science-based food-safety system" and advising federal agencies on "areas for investment in food safety," but will not have any enforcement or oversight authority. The existing structure, which gives the USDA authority over most fresh meat, poultry, dairy and produce products, and the FDA jurisdiction over processed foods, will remain intact.
Clinton's order follows by less than one week a report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, that concluded federal food-safety enforcement and oversight was "fragmented" among about one dozen agencies. The report stated that the U.S. food system remains the world's safest, but noted food-borne illness causes about 9,000 deaths and millions of food-poisoning cases annually.
The study's authors suggested Congress should create a new federal group, or agency, headed by one person, to oversee all food-safety activities. Food-industry groups strongly opposed naming a food-safety czar and sources said Clinton never seriously considered creating one.
The council will be co-chaired by the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, and the assistant to the president for science and technology.
"We are particularly pleased that the emphasis shifts to prevention, as it relates to pathogens such as E. coli, and anything that helps bring more consistency and coordination across the various departments is the right direction to go in," a Food Marketing Institute spokeswoman said.
At the Grocery Manufacturers of America here, Mary Sophos, its senior vice president for government affairs, said in a prepared statement, "The president's food-safety council will hopefully bring about a more consistent approach to communication and coordination of modernized, science-based regulations."
Creation of a council, she said, "avoids any unnecessary or disruptive restructuring of the nation's food-safety system."
A spokeswoman for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., suggested Clinton's order would be doubly beneficial to the produce industry: it does not create a new bureaucracy and "from the produce industry's point of view any step that brings the USDA into the front on decision-making is good. It has more than a century of experience with the process at the growing level, while the FDA is just starting to learn this."
The National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., expressed concern that the president's food-safety initiative could be counterproductive. "The president's mandate," said Thomas K. Zaucha, the NGA's president and chief executive officer, "calls for the council to develop a comprehensive food-safety plan and coordinate federal food-safety budgets. That could easily lead to an agenda with a priority on increased spending and more regulatory authority at the expense of scientific research."
The National Food Processors Association here also applauded the president's order, but cautioned that the council must reach out to industry. "Unless there is an established mechanism for food-industry scientists and policy experts to provide meaningful input, this council will not be truly effective in enhancing U.S. food safety," said Dane Bernard, the association's vice president of food-safety programs.
A spokesman for the National Broiler Council, also here, noting that the NRC report "stated food safety should be based on science," said the council should make this a paramount objective. "A science orientation is far more important than lines and boxes on an organization chart," the spokesman said.