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Trump proposes moving food safety programs from FDA to USDA in reorg plan

White House official discusses fragmented system at Cabinet meeting

This article is powered by Food Chemical News

A major surprise for the food industry in the White House’s new reorganization plan, released Thursday (June 21), is a call to move all food safety functions from FDA to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) under the newly named Federal Food Safety Agency.

Last year, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order directing the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to work up a reorganization plan.

The plan surfaced at a Cabinet meeting Thursday as OMB Director Mick Mulvaney pointed to the regulation of cheese pizza and saltwater fish as ample reasons for the shakeup.

“If you make a cheese pizza, it's governed by the Food and Drug Administration.  If you put a pepperoni on it, that's governed by the USDA.  If you have a chicken, it’s governed by the USDA.  If that chicken lays an egg, it's governed by the FDA.  But if you break the egg and make it into an omelet, that is now covered again by the USDA,” Mulvaney said at the meeting attended by Trump.

He went on to point out his “favorite” commodity split among different agencies – saltwater fish. Salmon in the ocean is governed by the Department of Commerce. “Once it swims up river, it's governed by the Department of Interior.  And to get there, it has to go up a fish ladder governed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is stupid,” he added.

“We move all that into the USDA.  Why?  Because they're really good at it,” he said. “It's not to say the FDA isn't, but wouldn't it be nice to have one place where people can go to, to get answers, to get results, to get permits, and to deal with regulatory affairs?”

The Trump administration says the proposal “would address the current fragmented Federal oversight of food safety,” and that “USDA demonstrates strong and effective leadership in food safety and maintains an expert understanding of food safety issues from the farm to the fork. This proposal would cover virtually all the foods Americans eat.”

Following the food reorganization, FDA – which would be renamed the “Federal Drug Administration” – would focus on drugs, devices, biologics, tobacco, dietary supplements, and cosmetics under the “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations” plan.

The 132-page plan also recommends several other changes for USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – the umbrella department that FDA reports to – including consolidating non-commodity nutrition assistance programs, moving them from USDA to HHS, and renaming HHS the Department of Health and Public Welfare.

"Similarly, for years they've handled the food stamp -- the SNAP program," Mulvaney said at the Cabinet meeting. "That makes absolutely no sense at all.  HHS is uniquely set up to handle that.  So we've moved that and some other means-tested welfare programs over into HHS and to have the -- to have it centralized so that we can deal with it."  

But when it comes to food, moving all of food safety functions out of FDA and into USDA comes as the biggest surprise from the Trump administration.

“The new Federal Food Safety Agency would pursue a modern, science-based food safety regulatory regime drawing on best practices of both USDA and HHS, with strong enforcement and recall mechanisms, expertise in risk assessment, and enforcement efforts across all food types based on scientifically supported practices,” the White House says.

The new agency would serve as the central point for coordinating with state and local entities and food safety stakeholders, “rationalizing and simplifying” the federal food safety regulatory regime, the plan states.

The Trump administration believes this reform would “reduce duplication of inspection at some food processing facilities, improve outreach to consumers and industry, and achieve savings over time while ensuring robust and coordinated food safety oversight.”

While FDA and FSIS currently have very different regulatory regimes, consolidating FSIS and the food safety functions of FDA would allow for a better allocation of resources based on risk, better communication during illness outbreaks, and improved policy and program planning through development of a single strategic plan, the White House says.

FSIS and FDA are the two primary agencies with major responsibilities for regulating food and the substances that may become part of food. FSIS is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish, while FDA is responsible for all other foods, including seafood and shelled eggs.

“We move all that into the USDA.  Why?  Because they're really good at it.” - OMB Director Mick Mulvaney

The plan notes that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has, for more than 40 years, reported that the fragmented federal oversight of food safety “has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources,” and food safety has been on GAO’s list of high-risk areas since 2007.

The Trump administration points out that GAO and other experts have recommended merging federal food safety functions as a potential solution to this fragmentation.

The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine have recommended that the “core federal food safety responsibilities should reside in a single entity or agency, with a unified administrative structure, clear mandate, a dedicated budget, and full responsibility for the oversight of the entire U.S. food supply,” the plan states.

“The irrational divisions of responsibility between FDA and FSIS have evolved since the early days of U.S. food regulation,” the Trump administration states. Different legislative authorities that govern FDA and FSIS that Congress added over time to meet new challenges have resulted in two distinct regulatory regimes, cultures, and approaches to addressing food safety, the plan says. “Thus, fully integrating FSIS and the food safety functions of FDA would ultimately require a reconciliation of underlying legislative authorities and regulatory approaches.”

Why USDA?

The plan says USDA is “well poised to house the Federal Food Safety Agency. USDA is a strong leader in food safety; has a thorough understanding of food safety risks and issues all along the farm to fork continuum; and many agencies within USDA focus on food safety.”

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) spends about $112 million on in-house food safety research, and ARS scientists work with both FSIS and FDA to help develop research priorities and food safety practices.

“In addition, many other programs at USDA have food safety elements, from helping to manage wildlife on farms, to monitoring animal health, to collecting pesticide residue data on fruits and vegetables,” the Trump administration says. “USDA also has established relationships between state departments of agriculture, local farms, and processing facilities, and is thus keenly aware of food safety issues at all levels.”

The proposed consolidation would merge around 5,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees and $1.3 billion from FDA with about 9,200 FTEs and $1 billion in resources in USDA, the plan states. In the long term, the administration expects this proposal “would result in improvements in food safety outcomes, policy and program consistency, and more efficient use of taxpayer resources.”

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