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Consumer groups demand single food-safety agency


April 3, 1997
Web posted at: 5:40 p.m. EST

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The recent hepatitis scare in frozen strawberries has prompted renewed calls from consumer groups for the creation of a single federal food-safety agency.

Consumer advocates wrote President Clinton Wednesday, saying the latest outbreak follows a year of increased food scares and signifies the need for a single agency to monitor food safety.

"Last year, there was a bumper crop of food-borne illnesses from FDA-regulated foods," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the groups demanding action.

Among recent food scares in the U.S., according to DeWaal:

  • More than 1,000 people fell ill from eating parasite- tainted Guatemalan raspberries.
  • At least 100 people received E.coli poisoning from lettuce.
  • One child died and dozens of others fell ill from drinking E.coli-tainted apple juice.
  • Hundreds of people became sick after eating bad oysters.

Although the U.S. food supply is considered the safest in the world, an estimated 9,000 Americans die every year from food poisoning. Between 9 million and 33 million become sick every year from some form of food poisoning, records show.

Several agencies responsible

The current food-safety system spreads responsibility among numerous agencies, including the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. For example, the USDA regulates meat; the FDA regulates most other food.


DeWaal and others contend the system is too inefficient, and that years of underfunding have left the FDA with a food safety program that is little more than a recall agency for contaminated foods.

In January, Clinton asked Congress for a $43 million food budget increase to help the agencies better monitor potential food hazards, among other things.

But the consumer groups say piecemeal reforms aren't enough.

Nancy Donley of Safe Tables Our Priority, whose 6-year-old son died after eating an E.coli-contaminated hamburger, said she "can't help but wonder if my only child would be alive" if a single agency had existed for food regulation.

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FDA: Current system works

Vicki Peal, whose father died after eating a bad oyster, said she fears "the consequences of having (the FDA) oversee new food-safety threats."


The FDA, meanwhile, insists that the various federal food agencies combined are up to the job.

"It's best to see this as sort of an integrated package of many people from many perspectives with different skills trying to assure the public health," said Dr. Michael Friedman, acting commissioner of the FDA.

Correspondent Eugenia Halsey contributed to this report.  

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