Today, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive food safety bill containing over 250 pages of new bureaucracy and regulations. Naturally, the press is largely framing this as a victory for the American public and a hopeful sign for bipartisanship in Washington.  While the bill was passed on a bipartisan vote, it hardly represents a win for the public.  Far from safer food, the only thing this food bill will bring to American consumers is bigger government, heavier regulation and higher costs at grocery stores and restaurants.  

Senator Tom Coburn waged a brave fight against the bill-offering amendments (that were defeated) that would have required the 15 different agencies that collectively administer at least 30 laws related to food safety to streamline systems and share information. 

In opposing the bill, Coburn specifically cited reports by the General Accountability Office which found that in 2003, FDA and USDA activities included overlapping and duplicative inspections of 1,451 domestic food-processing facilities that produce foods regulated by both agencies. This GAO testimony came on the heels of a 2005 GAO report that identified significant overlap in food safety activities conducted by USDA and the FDA, and to some extent the EPA and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), including “71 interagency agreements [to coordinate overlapping activities] that the agencies entered into… However, the agencies have weak mechanisms for tracking these agreements that…lead to ineffective implementation.”

Coburn also pointed out that in the recent Salmonella scare that hit the U.S., USDA inspectors saw problems with the egg producer but didn’t share that information with the FDA.  These problems point to the real cause of food safety mishaps–there’s too much regulation, not too little.

Another Senator seemed to be concerned about the overlap and duplication that exists in our nation’s food safety system.  In 1999, Senator Dick Durbin (who happens to be the chief sponsor of S. 510) held a food safety hearing where he trotted out a visual aid to show the complexities of our nation’s food safety system.  Covering the hearing at the time, the Chicago Tribune took a stab at describing the odd prop: 

He brought a chart delineating the different federal agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of both a frozen cheese pizza and a frozen pizza with pepperoni. In all, there are six agencies; these check out the chemicals, seed and animal feed at the “input” level; the wheat, tomatoes and cows at the farm level; the flour, tomato sauce, cheese and meat at the initial stage of processing; and the actual manufacture of the pie at the final level of processing.  A prehearing perusal of a Dyckman graphic inspired Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chief sponsor of legislation to radically simplify food regulation, to devise a prop in the form of a fake pizza, which opened up to display a chart of confusing regulations, all topped by this scrumptious oddity: The Department of Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over frozen pepperoni pizza, inspects such pizza processors daily, while the Food and Drug Administration, which has responsibility for frozen cheese pizza, inspects those processors an average of just once every 10 years. 

Unfortunately, Senator Durbin has done little more than add a few toppings to that prop pizza.  Thanks to a couple hundred new regulations, food prices will only rise…and our nation’s food supply will be no safer.