CHICAGO -- The government should designate a single federal agency to safeguard the nation's food supply rather than maintain the present system of having several departments responsible, according to a Food Marketing Institute position paper released here last week.
"America does have the safest food in the world, and the system isn't broken," said Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of FMI. But new challenges "can't be handled by the current regulatory structure."
He released the highlights of the position paper in a special briefing for the trade press at FMI's annual convention. He listed three emerging issues that influenced its position: (1) the arrival of biotechnology, (2) the dramatic expansion of food consumed away from home, and (3) the increasing globalization of the food supply.
The position paper states that the current regulatory system is "ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. More than a dozen federal agencies have jurisdiction over various parts of our food supply.
This patchwork quilt creates inconsistencies, gaps, overlaps, and duplication of effort that are becoming increasingly unworkable."
Hammonds stressed that FMI is not advocating the creation of a new agency. It is saying that just one of the present agencies should be given exclusive responsibility for safeguarding the food supply.
"We don't think the right approach is to create a new agency. It's much more effective to take one agency instead and transfer responsibility to it," he said, adding that FMI doesn't have a preference for which agency that would be.
"Now is the time to do it," he added, because a new presidential administration will begin in January 2001. Consequently, a move to a single food safety agency has a better of chance of succeeding than, say, during the second term of a presidency. Hammonds said FMI is stepping out alone on this issue, rather than issuing a joint position paper with a related trade group. FMI's intent, he said, is to announce its position first, and then study the reaction from the industry.
Reaction came quickly from the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group of food manufacturers.
"GMA believes consumers would be best served by better coordination and use of existing food regulatory resources.
"We have examined alternative regulatory models -- including the establishment ofa single federal food agency or designation of a primary agency -- and we have concluded that the present system, with enhanced integration of existing agency oversight roles, offers the best way to assure a safe, abundant and affordable food supply for U.S. consumers.
"We are always ready to consider new proposals and it is our understanding that the President's Food Safety Council will be presenting its own set ofrecommendations in the next few weeks. We will be taking a close look at all of these options to determine which one, or which combinations, offers appropriate enhancements to the existing regulatory structure."
FMI's position paper suggested the following five guiding principles regarding the decision to change to a single food safety agency:
(1) The single agency must build on the credibility and standard of excellence of the U.S. food supply.
(2) Total authority for all federal food safety oversight activities must be centralized. Top priority would be given to eliminating duplication and resolving inconsistencies.
(3) There must be a commitment to integrate federal food safety activities with those of state and local agencies.
(4) The guiding principle for aligning scarce resources with the most pressing food safety needs must be sound science.