There's a big debate over creating a government agency to make the food supply safe.
Around 48 million Americans get sick each year from contaminated food. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and at least 3,000 people die.
And there are economic costs. The losses to industry, including farmers, are estimated at more than $75 billion per year from foodborne illnesses.
To get those numbers much lower, the Obama administration and some members of Congress want to change the current alphabet soup of 15 government agencies that conduct various food safety inspections and move their efforts into one new system.
But will a single and bigger government agency work to make the nation’s food supply safer?
“It’s a great idea if it’s done right,” said David Acheson, a consultant for food and beverage companies and who has worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Drug Administration.
“We’ve need this for a long time,” Acheson added. “We need to straighten out our food safety issues.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“Something like this could be really difficult to put together,” said Nate Beaver, a partner and food and drug lawyer at Foley & Lardner. “I think rather than seeing something big, I think it’s better to deal with the FDA and the implementation of the delayed 2011 Food Modernization Act,” Beaver argued.
Current Food Safety System
As set up now, a myriad of agencies from the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration have a role in food safety. But the biggest players are the FDA and the USDA—with the FDA responsible for 80% of the food eaten in the U.S.
The FDA handles the safety of seafood, dairy products, shelled eggs along with fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, the USDA tackles poultry, processed eggs and meat. Both the FDA and USDA have roles in safety for imported food products.
An often-cited example of the complicated system is a piece of frozen pizza. The FDA is responsible for the safety of the cheese but USDA is responsible for the meat on the pizza.
A 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office states, “the fragmented federal oversight of food safety has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.”
And this is too much for some experts.
“It’s very difficult for food manufacturers to navigate all the inter-agency regulatory and compliance standards,” said Todd Harris, a food recall expert and vice president at the recall management firm Stericycle. “The proposed consolidation of food inspection agencies could streamline and reduce inter-agency confusion and complexity.”
Obama’s New Plan
To cut back on the number of agencies, President Obama would create the Food and Safety Administration and place it within the Department of Health and Human Services. The plan is part of his overall 2016 budget proposal.
In the proposal, Obama said the current food safety system’s “fractured oversight and disparate regulatory approaches” cause confusion, and that consolidation “is an essential step to reforming the federal food safety system overall.”
The idea of reform has gained some traction in Congress. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Il) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) proposed a bill called the Safe Food Act of 2015 that would among other things create a single, independent food safety agency.
“In theory, it all makes sense to do this,” said Michelle Greenwald, a professor at the Columbia Business School. “I think you eliminate some of the competition between agencies and people want proof their food is safe.”
However, some in the food industry don’t see bigger as better. When contacted, the National Chicken Council responded by pointing to a statement on its website that says: “…it would be more productive, effective, and efficient to facilitate improved coordination and communication between the existing agencies with food safety jurisdiction rather than focus on changing names on government office doors.”
Any kind of big merger of food agencies could backfire, said Claire Kruger, president of Spherix Consulting, a division of food consulting firm ChromaDex.
“Clashes of culture leading to less than optimal integration of people and processes as well as the loss of institutional memory due to elimination of positions could all affect the success of this idea,” Kruger said.
Food Modernization Act
Before the proposal of a single food safety agency came about, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)–the first major update to U.S. food safety laws in 70 years. Among the changes, the FSMA gives the FDA the authority to order a recall of food products. Up to now, with the exception of infant formula, the FDA has to rely on food manufacturers and distributors to recall food voluntarily.
It also calls for more frequent inspections at food facilities that pose a greater risk to food safety. And the law provides significant enhancements to FDA’s ability to oversee food produced in foreign countries and imported into the United States.
“In my opinion, the implementation of the FSMA will make any necessary changes to food inspection in the U.S., “said David Rosenfield, a food safety lawyer at Herrick Feinstein.
But the final rules have not been set in place yet and may not be so until late in 2016. They’re still being sorted out between Congress and the White House.
Is U.S. Food Safe?
Most analysts remain skeptical over the future of a super food agency to ever see the light of day. And support for the Durbin-DeLauro bill remains along party lines and consumer groups.
Despite deaths each year from contaminated food, most experts say Americans should be safe — but that they are always at risk.
“Is food safer than when Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle”? Certainly,” said Dan Herling, a product liability lawyer at Mintz Levin. “But inspections efforts to be ‘state of the art’ should continue. I doubt food can be 100% safe.”
Watch more business news from Fortune: