The two most important federal agencies dealing with the nation's food supply have new leadership, and in recent weeks they have sent out dramatically contrasting signals.
Agriculture Secretary Edward R. Madigan entered office in March and killed an innovative nutrition education program at the request of farm commodity groups, thereby reinforcing a widely held perception that USDA frequently bows to industry wishes.
Meanwhile, over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, commissioner David A. Kessler MD took up his post in January and began waging a high-profile campaign against false health claims on food labels. His targets were the misuse of the terms fresh and no cholesterol; his actions angered major manufacturers and industry trade groups.
FDA and USDA, whose responsibilities frequently overlap, are long-time rivals for federal funding and frequently compete over turf. There is especially intense competition between FDA and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees the nation's meat and poultry industries. Both agencies are battling for control of what is expected to be a $100-million seafood inspection program. FSIS and FDA are also wrestling over which agency's nutritional labeling regulations will be adopted for use on all food products.
The conflicts are inevitable because of the tangled jurisdictions between the agencies. USDA, a huge department composed of more than 40 agencies, is charged with promoting agriculture and is responsible for all meat and poultry products. FDA, a single component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is empowered to protect the public's health and is responsible for all other foods, including monitoring for pesticide residues, combatting microbiological contaminants, evaluating the safety of additives and inspecting imported food.
According to a recent General Accounting Office report, both FDA and USDA have less funding, less staff and more work than 10 years ago.
"Available data show that the resources of the agencies have decreased since 1980 while their work loads related to food safety and quality have increased," the GAO reported.
Supporting the GAO's finding was a study by a federal advisory committee on FDA. The 15-member group found that the agency's current condition posed the "risk of impending public health catastrophe." The committee also recommended that FDA be given independent status similar to the Environmental Protection Agency, but the suggestion was immediately dismissed by Bush Administration officials. (No similar study of USDA is currently under way.)
When two new leaders were stirred into this mixture of turf battles, elusive funding and public criticism, those familiar with both agencies were eager to reveal their first impressions. Secretary Madigan, 55, is a former Republican congressman from Illinois. Commissioner Kessler, 39, is a physician, lawyer and academician. A veteran Washington observer remarked that the difference was striking. "Kessler hit the ground running, while Madigan hit the ground and stayed there," he said.
Predictably, consumer advocates laud Kessler's crackdown on misleading food labels and complain about Madigan's "cave-in" on the Eating Right Pyramid, which emphasized consumption of grains and produce at the expense of meat and dairy products. On the other hand, industry representatives have applauded Madigan's cautiousness and attacked Kessler's "grandstanding."
"Secretary Madigan shot himself in the foot by caving in to the meat and dairy industries (over his cancellation of the Eating Right Pyramid)," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "I think he has undermined his credibility with the public . . . USDA (remains) a cheerleader for the industries it is supposed to oversee."
Jacobson, however, had praise for Kessler.
"He (Kessler) is a breath of fresh air in an agency where there was stale air for so many years. I hope this indicates a pattern of strong enforcement and an effort to stop companies from lying to the public (on product labels and advertisements)," Jacobson said. "He is reinvigorating the agency and reestablishing credibility with Congress, the public and the food industry."
Jacobson's opinions were certainly not echoed at the National Food Processors Assn., a Washington-based trade group.
Association president John R. Cady was highly critical of Kessler's methods, charging the commissioner with "regulating through the press."
"FDA should focus on the larger issues confronting the agency and stop this 'hunt and peck' approach . . . with (food labels)," Cady said.
As for USDA, Cady was more understanding of Madigan's situation.