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Is It Possible to Streamline America's Fragmented Food Safety System?

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Flickr Creative Commons, Pink Sherbet Photography
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Members of Congress want to strengthen the way food is regulated in America.

Let's take a frozen cheese pizza. We'll add a little pepperoni to it -- and ship it off to a supermarket. Now, the question: who makes sure that pizza is safe to eat?

"As soon as you add the pepperoni, you introduce the Department of Agriculture," said reporter Wil Hylton. "Otherwise it will be under Health and Human Services and the FDA."

Hylton recently wrote about food safety for The New Yorker. "It's very funny, at first, to think about how some of these categories are defined," he said. "Fish is the province of the FDA, but if it's catfish, then it's the USDA." 

Hylton said that means that many products (think cheese pizza ) incorporating subproducts (think pepperoni) come under the bailiwick of a patchwork of different agencies -- 15 of them, to be exact. "You end up having this whole community of regulators who are involved in controlling the distribution cycle," he said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro wants to change that. She's introduced a bill in Congress that would create a single independent food safety agency.  "Almost nobody who works in food safety either at the federal level or in advocacy groups, or in academe, believes that this system makes sense," Hylton said. "This is sort of just the way, piecemeal elements of the food safety infrastructure came into existence. When you add it all up, it makes this very discombobulated system."

DeLauro said her bill would also improve food safety inspections and boost international consumer confidence in American products.

This week, President Barack Obama also proposed his own food safety agenda, calling for the creation of a stand-alone agency that would be folded into the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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