WASHINGTON - Worried that bioterrorists might strike next at the nation's food supplies, the Bush administration is reviving a proposal to bring the government's patchwork of food safety agencies under one roof.
Government food inspections are scattered across about a dozen agencies, in sometimes haphazard ways. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety of cheese pizza, but the Agriculture Department takes over if there's a pepperoni topping. Whole eggs are inspected daily by Agriculture, but egg products - such as those sold in a carton - get annual inspections by the FDA.
Critics say the system, which has been pieced together over the past century, is duplicative, inefficient and inconsistent.
Its most outspoken defenders are the food-processing and agricultural industries, which have grown comfortable with today's arrangements and fear that change would mean tighter regulation.
The industry has scuttled attempts at consolidation in the past, but the idea is gaining momentum in light of the Sept. 11 attacks and the deadly anthrax scare. Tom Ridge, the administration's homeland security chief, is spearheading the effort.
"For security enhancement, we ought to at least take a look at whether or not we need to merge functions, merge agencies," Ridge told a gathering of national security experts recently.
"One agency does chickens and pigs, another agency does vegetables," Ridge said. "The question is - and we need to consider this in light of homeland security - whether or not we want to have multiple organizations basically tasked with the same responsibility or if we couldn't enhance our security, improve our efficiency and maybe save a few bucks ... if we merged functions."
Ridge did not give himself a deadline but said the administration would begin exploring consolidation options as early as this year. Bush generally opposes creating new government agencies, and he is thought more likely to favor consolidating inspection responsibilities under an agency, such as the FDA.
In addition to the FDA and the Agriculture Department, other agencies that share responsibility for food safety include the Customs Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The current system was never designed to deal with the kind of hazards we are grappling with today," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the independent Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We are regulating the food supply today using horse-and-buggy technology."
The group, which supports the creation of a single food safety agency, says the gaps and differing standards under the food inspection system have put Americans' health at risk.
According to the CDC, 76 million Americans fall ill every year from food-borne illnesses. Of these, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,200 die.
Food industry groups, which defeated an attempt to consolidate food-safety agencies during the Clinton administration, are worried about the renewed effort.
Ridge's comments "have caused some heartburn for us," said Kelly Johnston, executive vice president and lobbyist for the National Food Processors Association. "The truth is, the system is not broken."
Johnston said his group worries that overhauling the system when security concerns are heightened might create havoc at a particularly sensitive time. "We need to make sure the existing systems are in place so consumers have confidence," he said.
But there appears to be growing interest within the Bush administration to explore consolidation. As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush voiced support for the idea. And though Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has taken no formal position on consolidation, he has repeatedly said that terrorist attacks against the nation's food supply are among his biggest concerns.
"To have that kind of leadership behind this issue can make the difference," said Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has sponsored legislation since 1998 that would consolidate food safety responsibility.
A bioterrorism bill introduced in the Senate this month would provide an additional $500 million for food safety. The bill would require food processors to register with the federal government and give regulators greater authority to look at company records, Durbin said.
Durbin added that he plans to offer an amendment to the bill that would give the government power to order food recalls and impose fines on companies.