Investigators report benefits of single food safety agency

Monday, February 21st 2005, 2:08 pm

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Seven countries that each created a single food safety agency reduced overlapping inspections and focused their efforts on the greatest risks, congressional investigators found in a draft report obtained Monday. Such regulation in the United States is divided among 12 agencies.

The report did not explicitly recommend consolidation of U.S. agencies. But it said that more efficient and better-targeted inspections would outweigh the disadvantages of higher initial costs to acquire buildings and laboratory equipment.

The Government Accountability Office investigators said they could not determine whether consolidation reduced food-borne illness in the seven countries, because too many other factors were involved.

The GAO studied food safety in Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

In those countries, the report said, ``Improvements include less overlap in inspections, greater clarity in responsibilities and more consistent or timely enforcement of food safety laws and regulations.''

Last March, the same congressional agency said mad cow disease and the potential for terrorist attacks on the food supply demonstrate the need for a single federal food safety agency.

The GAO said the U.S. patchwork system isn't up to the job of protecting against the new threats. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said late last year that he worries ``every single night'' about a possible terror attack on the food supply.

Despite dramatic increases in inspections of food imports, only ``a very minute amount'' of food is tested at ports and airports, Thompson said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the senators who asked for the study, is sponsoring legislation that would create a single, independent U.S. food safety agency to handle inspections, enforcement and establishment of standards. Most food safety officials are at the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

Durbin said the report is further evidence that a ``single food safety agency is the single best way to protect families from food-related illness or attack. One agency with clear and independent authority will ensure that food safety is driven by science not politics,'' Durbin said.

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