On the heels of a listeria outbreak associated with caramel apples and a similar proposal by two members of Congress, President Obama has proposed forming a single, centralized federal food safety agency. More than a dozen federal agencies now have authority over food safety issues, although the FDA currently holds the most responsibility. The various agencies’ intersecting roles are seemingly inefficient and confusing. For example, the FDA oversees cheese pizza, but a sub-agency of the USDA handles pepperoni pizza; the FDA is charged with inspecting sausage casings, while the Food Safety and Inspection Services of the USDA inspects the meat inside the sausages.

The Safe Food Act of 2015, introduced last week by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), contemplates forming a single food safety agency, as does Obama’s proposal. The proposed single food agency would handle food safety inspections, research, investigations, labeling regulation, and recalls for all food (produced abroad and at home) distributed in the United States. However, Obama’s proposal would place this agency under the Department of Health and Human Services, while Durbin and DeLauro push for an entirely independent agency. Consumer groups and proponents of the Durbin/DeLauro proposal criticize the idea of adding yet another agency to the overloaded HHS, saying that a new food safety agency would be “lost” within a department so massive.

By having a single, independent agency responsible for all food safety-related work, DeLauro and Durbin argue there will be greater accountability and ultimately more effective oversight of food safety in the United States.

The proposed single food agency would handle food safety inspections, research, investigations, labeling regulation, and recalls for all food . . . .

The push to streamline food safety responsibilities follows a recent 10-state outbreak of a listeria pathogen, which has infected approximately 30 people and resulted in at least five deaths. This particular strain of listeria has been associated with caramel apples and has infected people in Arizona, California, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. Infected consumers and their families have filed product liability and wrongful death lawsuits against an apple supplier, a caramel apple manufacturer, and retailers.