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Chef José Andrés is founder of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, an organization that distributes food in areas affected by natural disasters. In an op-ed piece published recently in the New York Times, Andrés called for a U.S. Secretary of Food, a cabinet position that focuses specifically on food itself and the systems around distributing and accessing it.
Currently, there are as many as 15 federal agencies and more than 3,000 state and local agencies that regulate food by the time it reaches you. Almost everything we eat is looked at by two national government agencies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture works to support the American agriculture economy and “provide a safe, sufficient, and nutritious food supply to the American people.” The Food and Drug Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “regulates drugs, dietary supplements, and ensures that the foods people eat in the U.S. are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled.” A third agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ensures the safety of drinking water and regulates the use of pesticides and any pesticide residual on food.
The History of the U.S. Secretary of Food
On Jan. 4, 2011, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law and was the biggest change to the nation’s food safety system since the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938. It was in response to concerns over foodborne diseases that had caused the deaths of people and animals. In the past 10 years, the focus has been on reducing the risk of contamination by those who grow, produce, pack, hold, import and transport our food. Food production is constantly evolving, as are the pathogens that can cause contamination. We have seen that this year with the concerns of Covid-19 and the production of food. Everyone recognizes that keeping domestic and imported food safe is good for public health, and it’s good for business. And yet, more than 40% of inspected food is rejected because of improper labeling, and not because of testing positive for any contamination.
The USDA Reorganization Act of 1994 created the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety and this job has been vacant 50% of the time. This is a subcabinet position which coordinates U.S. delegations to the Codex Alimentarius Commission for international food safety policy and is charged with oversight of the Food Safety and Inspection of our nation’s supply of meat, poultry, and processed egg products. Congress established the position to give food safety some clout or gravitas against all the sales, marketing and trade functionaries with which the USDA is so heavy.
The USDA versus the FDA
There are confusing divisions between the USDA and the FDA. The USDA regulates and inspects chicken, beef, pork, catfish, apples, open faced meat sandwiches, and pepperoni pizzas. The FDA regulates and inspects eggs, milk, venison, wild game, tuna, applesauce, closed meat sandwiches, and cheese pizzas. A frozen pepperoni pizza, because it contains meat, will be inspected at the slaughterhouse, the meat processing plant and at the pizza factory by the USDA. But a frozen cheese pizza only needs FDA approval for the nutritional label.
USDA and the EPA set a goal in 2015 to cut U.S. food waste 50% by 2030. The agencies could not agree on a baseline of food loss and waste but estimated 30%-40% of the food supply was lost at the retail-to-consumer levels. Although they stated that loss could happen at every stage of the food supply, the focus was on food available for consumption after it left the farm gate.
According to a statement on the USDA website, the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions consist of 30-plus businesses and organizations that made a commitment to “reduce food waste and loss in their own operations in the United States by 50% by the year 2030.” Think grocery stores, restaurants, food service, food manufacturers, hospitality and entertainment.
This is an important mission, however, none of the businesses and organizations involved so far include farmers. Nothing was included in the mission statement regarding the crops that are destroyed onsite by farmers for lack of markets or falling prices. This summer and fall we saw ⸺ among other crops ⸺ swine, eggs, milk, and potatoes destroyed and wasted by producers before they ever left the farm gate. The USDA recognizes this part of the food waste stream, there’s even a link to suggestions to reduce it on the agency’s website, but waste on the farm is not part of the 2030 goal.
Data from multiple studies suggest that three-quarters of Earth’s food supply draws on just 12 plants and 5 livestock species. The top six crops ⸺ sugar, corn, rice, wheat, potatoes and soybeans ⸺ are subsidized by the government and utilized in junk food or for purposes other than food. The disappearance of agrobiodiversity will affect food security, the availability of access to healthy diets and sustainability. The U.S. food supply is shaped by politics, international trade agreements, industry lobbying and agribusiness.
Why a U.S. Secretary of Food?
Many have asked if a single national food authority could be the answer. I would answer yes, but the U.S. is not committed to reorganizing and implementing such an endeavor at this time. Even the Government Accountability Office labeled the patchwork of federal food oversight as a “high risk issue, noting that it caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.” There is no single entity responsible for a comprehensive national policy for feeding all of America equitably. Our country is plagued by what Chef Andrés calls food deserts and lack of secure access to healthy diets for all people.
Andrés has offered suggestions for fixing many of our food issues, from subsidizing small farmers in selling healthier foods to local markets to improving the health of vulnerable families by expanding the food supplies in corner stores and in classrooms. What he is requesting is the leadership provided by a Secretary of Food that has the support and ear of our incoming administration. I think he has the answer in rebuilding our communities, putting people back to work and fighting hunger in our nation. Let’s hope for a better-fed world in 2021!
Christine Blackledge was a northern Michigan dairy farmer. She obtained master’s degrees in International Business Administration, Public Health and Food Safety, along with certificates in Hazard Analysis, Critical Control Points (HACCP) and International Food Laws and Regulations. For the past 10 years she has worked with USAID projects helping small farmers and processors to produce safe food for consumption and export.
Welcome to this collective learning experience on global food safety. Contact us to work together.
If it isn’t safe, it isn’t food (FAO)