WASHINGTON — Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge says the Bush administration, concerned about the nation's food supply, is looking at making a single federal agency responsible for keeping deadly toxins out of everything from beef to broccoli.
The current system has resulted in bizarre divisions of responsibility for food safety between the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department.
The FDA, for example, is responsible for cheese pizza and the Agriculture Department for pepperoni pizza. The department is responsible for open-face sandwiches, FDA for closed-face. In some plants, department inspectors have been barred by company officials from acting on problems found in products regulated by the FDA.
"We have to see whether the system that has developed over the past two decades is the one we need in the future," Ridge told food industry officials at a conference Thursday.
The FDA, which is responsible for safeguarding nearly all foods except meat and poultry, has only a fraction of the inspection staff that the USDA has, and weaker legal authority. The FDA has about 750 inspectors to check 55,000 food plants nationwide. The Agriculture Department has 10 times as many inspectors for 6,000 meat processors.
"One of the questions we need to answer is . . . whether or not we need multiple agencies dealing with food safety responsibilities," Ridge said.
Congress would have to approve any merger.
Consumer advocates and the supermarket industry long have pushed for creation of a single food agency. But food makers have resisted, and officials in the two agencies are also reluctant to lose any power. Even the idea of giving the FDA more staff and legal authority, to bring it up to par with the Agriculture Department, is unpopular with segments of the food industry.
Ridge assured food industry officials that they would be consulted as the administration considers consolidating the inspection system.
Kelly Johnston, executive vice president of government affairs for the National Food Processors Assn., said any merger now would be "very disruptive" to the industry, given the heightened concern about security.
"Before we embark on a radical restructuring of the food safety agencies, we should be absolutely convinced that there is no better way to proceed," said Manly Molpus, president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
The General Accounting Office told Congress last fall that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 made it more imperative than ever to consolidate the inspection agencies.