By Marion Wang, ProPublica Reporter
Years before last week’s recall of more than half a billion salmonella-contaminated eggs, a government watchdog report  said federal oversight of food safety is a “high-risk area,” noting that responsibility for food safety is fragmented among at least 15 agencies [PDF].
That same report, from 2007, noted that expenditures between the two main agencies—the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—showed the FDA holding the short end of the stick.
From the report:
For example, the majority of federal expenditures for food safety inspection were directed toward USDA’s programs for ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, and egg products; however, USDA is responsible for regulating only about 20 percent of the food supply. In contrast, FDA, which is responsible for regulating about 80 percent of the food supply, accounted for only about 24 percent of expenditures.
The report also noted that food recalls are voluntary and neither the FDA nor the USDA have the authority to order them—except for the FDA’s authority to force a recall of infant formula. The report proposed that Congress enact an overhaul and, in particular, give these agencies the authority to order food recalls.
The report noted gaps in the system that were “most obvious in two areas—imported foods and on-farm food safety,” and noted again that the FDA lacked authority to order food recalls. It also noted that for on-farm regulation, the “FDA relies almost completely on voluntary guidance documents and initiatives” and “occasionally” inspects farms, “but almost exclusively in periods of crisis.”
FDA chief Margaret Hamburg, in Monday morning interviews on the major TV networks , hammered on her agency’s lack of regulatory power and called for the passage of a pending food safety bill  that would give the FDA greater authority over imported food and the ability to force recalls. That bill—a version of which was passed by the House in 2009—has stalled in the Senate  despite bipartisan support, as Politico noted.Reuters pointed out in March that there were concerns that the bill—which provides more oversight of imported food—would affect trade . And industry lobbyists—namely, the Chamber of Commerce and the Grocery Manufacturers Assocation—also played their part in delaying the bill by fighting over a single amendment. Here’s what The Washington Post reported about the fight in April :
The food industry and major business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are threatening to withdraw support for a long-pending bill to improve food safety, saying they are upset by a proposed amendment that would ban bisphenol-A, a controversial chemical, from food and beverage containers.
The Senate legislation was also the subject of lobbying efforts by at least 196 organizations , according to OpenSecrets.org. Those groups included such businesses as Dunkin’ Brands, Starbucks, Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Yum! Brands (the parent company of Taco Bell, which was linked to a salmonella outbreak  this summer), Cargill (which recently resolved  an E. coli lawsuit), and ConAgra Foods (which recently recalled Marie Callender's frozen entrees  after they were linked to a salmonella outbreak), according to Food Safety News .The bill had also initially been opposed by smaller farms and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an advocacy group, until they won amendments  allowing the FDA to grant small farming operations exemptions or modifications to new regulations.
The bill is expected to go up for a vote when the Senate returns in September.ProPublica is a nonprofit news organization that produces investigative journalism.