The Food and Drug Administration has been the subject of withering criticism in recent years for its failure to protect the nation's food supply in the wake of bacteria outbreaks in such products as peanut butter, peppers, spinach and, just recently, pistachio nuts.
Now the FDA is getting a new boss, and President Obama's appointment of Margaret Hamburg, 53, to head the agency suggests that the White House is concerned that food poisoning could someday be more than just natural contamination.
Hamburg, formerly New York City's health commissioner, is a renowned expert in bioterrorism.
The federal government, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, began mandating that food suppliers keep meticulous records of whom they buy from and whom they sell to. But critics say the regulations aren't working -- and statistics appear to prove them right.
A recent survey by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 60 percent of food suppliers ignore reporting requirements, and 25 percent are not even aware that they have to keep such records.
Legislation is now pending in Congress that would overhaul the inspection system by creating a new Food Safety Administration within HHS. Under the bill, called the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, the new agency would have the authority to confiscate -- at the supplier's expense -- food that it considers a threat to public health. The new agency would be required to inspect all food suppliers at least once a year, and it would enforce regulations that require suppliers to record the buyer and seller in all their transactions.
The new agency is needed, says Dr. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, an advocacy group. "We need to increase inspection capacity, reporting requirements, and the authority to issue mandatory recalls," he said.
But others worry that the bill would put an unreasonable burden on small farmers and food suppliers, who would have to keep very thorough records.
"The threat is that they would go to small farmers and say, you have to fill out this, this and this. Small farmers don't have the time for that type of thing. They would have to hire someone... more and more small farms would fall by the wayside," said Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association.
Others say that creating a new department would be expensive and could increase bureaucracy.
"Creating a new agency is just bureaucratically stressful," said Mark Senak, a public health lawyer who runs the blog "Eye on the FDA."
"You can look at the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, where putting many agencies under one roof led to a lot of disruption. It even took a while to decide where the headquarters were going to be."
But those who support a new agency say they hope it will facilitate communication between food safety officials and actually eliminate bureaucratic inefficiency.
"Yes, you're creating new letterhead, but it's not like you're suddenly doubling the size of government," Levi said. "It would actually remove the layer of bureaucracy between the Food Safety Chief and the Secretary of Health and Human Services."
It would also allow the FDA to focus entirely on drug safety, he said.
"Right now, the FDA is responsible for inspecting both food and drugs -- those are very different expertises. An FDA director is not going to have expertise in all those fields."
But critics say that rather than reorganize the departments, the government should just focus on increasing inspections of food facilities.
"One problem is that we're not inspecting facilities," said Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the CATO institute.
Adding a whole new agency, he said, "strikes me as a way of putting additional bureaucracy on top of existing bureaucracy. Creating a whole bunch of people sitting behind desks in Washington isn't going to get anything inspected faster."
Food inspections are down since the early 1970s, based on congressional testimony from former FDA Associate Commissioner William Hubbard, who worked with the FDA for 33 years. In the early 1970s, 35,000 out of 70,000 food processing plants were inspected annually. Now the FDA inspects only 7,000 plants, and the number of plants has risen to 150,000.
Part of the decline is attributed to a decrease in the number of inspectors, which fell 20 percent between 2003 and 2008.
Aside from increasing inspections, Tanner said he thought that further reforms may not be necessary, since private companies have strong reasons for ensuring quality.
"The companies that created problems -- like the peanut company -- they've gone bankrupt," he said. "The senior officers are out of a job, and in some cases they are being sued and facing jail time.
"But the government bureaucrats aren't going to jail. You have more accountability in the private sector than in the government. There seem to be better ways to handle this than expansion of government bureaucracy."