Congress is preparing to debate various plans for overhauling the US' food safety system. As consumer confidence falls in the government's ability to ensure food safety, a change may be needed. Some Congress members want to create a single agency for all food standards, although many in the industry want things to stay as they are. In the end, the solution might be simpler than total overhaul: more resources and shared burdens.

While food experts agree that the US has one of the world's safest food supplies, many Americans are losing faith in the system. A 2000 survey conducted by CMF&Z Public Relations gives the government a mere 39% confidence rating on food safety, down from 50% five years ago.

The two agencies that head the nation's food safety system are the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees meat and poultry products, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for the remaining 80% of the food supply. The FDA has only 750 inspectors working with a budget of $260 million to monitor 55,000 food plants. The USDA, on the other hand, has over twice the money and thousands more inspectors to check 6,000 plants. Small wonder that the FDA inspects less than 1% of imported foods and ingredients.

Bio-terrorism attacks aside, the domestic food market has become too complex for the FDA to oversee. For instance, 'functional foods' have eroded the line between food and medicine. As reports of their conflicting benefits and side effects make headlines almost every day, it's clear that ensuring the safety of functional foods goes beyond just contamination. The FDA is
several paces behind.

For some, the answer lies in a single food safety agency and uniform food safety standards. Representative Rosa DeLauro's Safe Food Act would combine the functions now being handled by several agencies under a single Food Safety Administration. However, many industry players insist that adjusting the current system would be a costly mistake.

Congress could certainly take other measures short of such radical overhaul - most obviously, increasing the FDA's budget. The pending bill that will provide an additional $350 million to food safety programs could be a good step. Sharing some of the burdens with the industry might also be wise. While some companies might be reluctant to pay, the alternative of a vulnerable food safety system combined with lower consumer confidence could be far more costly.

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