US Needs Powerful Food
Safety Chief - 9,000 Die
& Millions Sick Yearly
By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States needs a powerful food safety chief to oversee food from farm to table, a panel of scientific experts said Thursday, possibly to head a body unifying the dozen agencies now doing the chore. In a report requested by Congress to aid its modernization of food safety work, the National Academy of Sciences panel also recommended the repeal of laws requiring federal inspection of every animal carcass. The ``sniff and poke'' examination dates from the early 1900s and is the first line of defense in ensuring meat is safe to eat. The report called for a uniform set of food safety rules to replace the current mishmash and adoption of a science-based regime that would identify and prevent the major food risks, such as chemical or microbial contamination. An estimated 9,000 Americans die and millions get sick each year from eating contaminated food. ``To address the fragmentation of the U.S. system, Congress should establish a unified, central framework, headed by one official who controls resources for all federal food safety activities,'' panel chairman John Bailar, of the University of Chicago, told a news conference. ``It may be that the best arrangement would be to establish a single food safety agency...'' Many of the 13 members of the panel believed a super-agency was the best approach, the report said. Bailar said the committee, operating on consensus, did not vote on the idea. Instead, it recommended a unified system directed by ``an identifiable, high-ranking, presidentially appointed head'' who controls the budget and staff for food safety inspection, research, public education and investigation of food illnesses. A new cabinet-rank food safety agency was one of four possible ways to achieve the goal, the report said. Other examples were a Food Safety Council of agency directors or naming one of the current agencies as leader for all work. The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest said the report proved ``the weakness'' of a splintered system ''that works better for Washington power brokers and bureaucrats than it does for American consumers.'' CSPI advocates creation of a consolidated food agency. Kelly Johnston of the National Food Processors Association, a trade group, said there was ``no real public pressure'' to change the food safety system. ``Anytime you play with jurisdiction ... it's really hard to do in Congress,'' Johnston said. Bailar said the amalgam of food safety agencies was ``a patchwork quilt rather than a seamless network'' but the risk to consumers was small. Panel member Marsha Cohen, of the University of California-San Francisco, said the committee resisted calling its proposed food-safety chief a ``czar'' because most officials carrying that moniker hold little or no power. Rather than requiring visual examination of each carcass, the panel said, Congress should devote more attention to preventing contamination of food and to implementing the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system. Also known as HACCP, the system focuses on the points where contamination risks are highest and finding ways to prevent it. In addition, the report said the United States should allow food imports only from nations whose food inspection standards are equal to U.S. rules. Chartered by Congress in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences is a private group of scholars whose duties include advising the government on scientific and technical issues.