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Lawmakers push for change in food safety oversight

Story Highlights

• Lawmakers pushing to put all food safety oversight under a single federal agency
• 12 federal agencies, 35 laws govern food safety
• USDA oversees meat and poultry; FDA governs eggs and produce
• Since 2003, FDA has cut field staff by 12 percent, from 2,217 to 1,962
By David S. Martin
CNN
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(CNN) -- Spurred by deadly outbreaks of E. coli and other food-borne pathogens, a group of U.S. lawmakers is pushing to put all food safety oversight under a single federal agency.

"I believe the food safety system is broken. It's collapsing," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, told CNN "We're unable to protect the public health. We're unable to protect public confidence in the food supply."

DeLauro has introduced the Food Safety Act of 2007, which would create a Food Safety Administration responsible for ensuring the security of the food supply from all forms of contamination. (Watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta explain how spinach can become contaminated Video )

Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Chuck Schumer, D-New York, introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The proposed legislation comes on the heels of a number of widespread outbreaks of food-borne illness.

An E. coli outbreak in spinach last year killed three people and sickened more than 200. The FDA has confirmed 22 outbreaks of E. coli O157 linked to fresh leafy greens (20 lettuce, 2 spinach) since 1995. Half of those were linked to bagged salads. (Watch family of a sickened toddler question U.S. food safety Video)

Further fueling public concern, more than 400 people fell ill between last fall and this spring after eating peanut butter contaminated by salmonella spread by a sprinkler system.

In March, growing reports of sick and dying cats and dogs led to a recall of pet food whose maker had used melamine-laced food additives from China. Chickens and hogs that had consumed pet food remnants were withheld from slaughter for a time out of concerns about human melamine consumption.

Currently, 12 federal agencies and 35 laws govern food safety, often with overlapping jurisdictions and different priorities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration play the biggest roles in making sure the food Americans eat is safe. The USDA oversees meat and poultry, while the FDA is responsible for eggs and produce. (Interactive: How science can help keep our food safe )

The lines are not always clear-cut. For example, cheese pizzas fall under the FDA, while pepperoni pizzas fall under the Department of Agriculture.

In January, the Government Accountability Office added federal oversight of food safety to its list of "high risk" programs in need of "broad-based transformation." The GAO urged Congress to consider "a fundamental re-examination of the system ... before public health and safety is compromised."

Critics point to the FDA, in particular, as needing reform. The FDA oversees 80 percent of the food supply but receives only 20 percent of the funding.

"I call it 'Katrina on your plate.' You've got an agency, the FDA, that's understaffed, under-funded, without leadership, and it's not doing its job. And it's causing a real life suffering and death for people," said Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit watchdog group in Washington.

By the FDA's own accounting, the agency is operating under a $135 million shortfall. Since 2003, the FDA has cut field staff (inspectors and their support staff) by 12 percent, from 2,217 to 1,962. Inspections dropped 32 percent during the same period, according to FDA budget documents.

Robert E. Brackett, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, defended the job his agency is doing in an interview with CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

"I think food is very safe in this country, by and large," Brackett said. "In fact, according to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] statistics, it appears to be getting even safer over the last few years."

According to the CDC, each year there are 76 million incidents of food poisoning, leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

Recurring outbreaks linked to produce have prompted a number of congressional hearings on food safety in recent months, but even the biggest proponents of overhauling government oversight of the food supply are not predicting passage of the Safe Food Act this year.

"We've begun a process," DeLauro said. "I believe more and more that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle are realizing that the public health is at risk."

A new Food Safety Administration isn't needed because USDA and FDA investigators already work well together to track and stop food-borne illness, Agriculture Department spokesman Keith Williams said.

The FDA's Brackett said he supports any change that would make food safer, but added that protections in place now may be lost in the transition to a single agency.

David S. Martin is a senior producer with CNN Medical News.


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