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Streamlining a byzantine bureaucracy

Streamlining federal bureaucracy: A case of the chicken and the reg


To make a point about government duplication, President Barack Obama reached for that quintessential punch line: smoked fish.

"The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," he said during the State of the Union speech in January.

"I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

Lame joke aside, Obama was tapping into one of the ugly realities of the federal government. It's so big and complicated that different agencies often focus on the same thing.

That's shockingly clear in a new report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, a 345-page indictment of redundancy that runs from duplicative health services in the military to repetitive tax policies to boost ethanol production.

More than 80 different government programs monitor teacher quality. Funding for roads, bridges, highways and rail flows through 100 separate programs with separate funding streams adding up to $58 billion annually.

The GAO provided a road map to lawmakers struggling to cut the budget. Consolidating health care in the military could save up to $460 million annually, for starters. Eliminating ethanol tax credits could save up to $5.7 billion.

But government bloat has been decades in the making, a result of in-the-moment regulatory reactions, agency turf wars and political pressure and favoritism. Undoing it will not be easy or swift.

Which brings us back to Obama's fish tale.

Fifteen federal agencies oversee 30 food safety laws, a mishmash that the GAO has said is not only inefficient but could be contributing to health risks. From tainted peanut butter to bad spinach and turkey burgers, food is generating lots of negative news.

The main agencies are the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees, meat, poultry and processed egg products, and the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for most all other food, including fish and seafood except catfish (more on that later).

Along comes a crisis — like last year's outbreak of salmonella illnesses caused by eggs — and the gaps are readily exposed.

The USDA is responsible for the health of chickens while FDA oversees the feed they eat. The FDA is responsible for ensuring that shell eggs are safe, but once they are cracked and made into products, oversight falls back to USDA.

"It's absolutely crazy," said Bill Marler, a lawyer in Washington state who has been litigating food-borne illness cases since the early 1990s.

The Washington Post reported last year that as the egg crisis developed, eventually leading to the recall of more than 500 million eggs, the agencies were not communicating about sanitation problems and refused to share response plans before they became public.

Eggs provide only one example of the fractured oversight and new divisions that have been created. Under heavy industry lobbying, lawmakers in 2008 agreed to give the USDA control over catfish.

Domestic catfish producers have been battling imports from Asia and say USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service will do a better job. The cost of starting the program: An estimated $5 million.

"It's everything that's wrong about the food safety system," David Acheson, a food safety consultant and former assistant commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, recently told the Associated Press. "It's food politics. It's not public health."

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which Obama signed into law in January, was a landmark and gave the FDA the power to recall food, rather than ask producers to do it voluntarily.

The law, however, did not affect USDA, which cannot order recalls of meat and other food. "If anything, it creates a little more fragmentation," said Lisa Shames, a director in GAO's Natural Resources and Environment team.

So how can the situation be fixed, can it be fixed, and will a streamlined effort save money? The answer to the last question is probably not.

The GAO report states that reducing fragmentation "is not expected to result in significant cost savings." Many experts say the FDA, for example, needs more funding, not less.

But eliminating redundancy has other benefits. A tighter focus on food safety could improve public health and boost consumer confidence.

The most ambitious solution offered by the GAO is one it has advocated for years: the creation of a single agency to oversee food safety.

Don't bet on it happening.

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 attacks showed how complex that can be, and the GAO is aware of unsuccessful mergers in the corporate world. Agencies are not likely to cede power.

"Nobody wants to give up turf in this town," said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who has introduced single-agency legislation since 1999. She says she will keep trying.

There's another hurdle: Congress. The various jurisdictions that have developed over decades have created powerful, tightly defined pockets of power that attract campaign contributions from the food industry.

"When it really comes down to it, it's about money," said Marler. "Fragmentation benefits somebody; it just doesn't benefit the public."

The GAO instead emphasizes smaller goals. One seems simple enough: Get all the federal stakeholders together by creating a "government-wide performance plan" for food safety that includes defined goals, performance measures and sharing of strategies and resources.

"Without a government-wide performance plan for food safety, decisionmakers do not have a comprehensive picture of the federal government's performance on this crosscutting issue," the GAO said.

"In addition, the federal government does not formulate an overall budget for food safety, making it difficult for Congress to monitor the federal resources allocated to federal food safety oversight."

Even that could be slow going. The Office of Management and Budget, which would coordinate the government plan, has so far been silent on the recommendation.

"We are reviewing the report but have no comment at this time," said a spokeswoman, Meg Reilly.

Shames, of the GAO, is perplexed. Amid great interest about government duplication and the ongoing fiscal woes, she said, "It's surprising they wouldn't take this fairly modest step."

There has been some progress. A Food Safety Working Group created by Obama in 2009 and co-chaired by the secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture has been credited for pushing more collaboration among agencies to make produce safer and reduce salmonella contamination.

"However, as a presidentially appointed working group its future is uncertain," the GAO report observed, "and the experience of the Council on Food Safety, which disbanded less than three years after it was created, illustrates that this type of approach can be short-lived."

Read the GAO report:

Chickens, eggs

and federal regs

The FDA is generally responsible for ensuring that shell eggs are safe, wholesome and properly labeled.

But break those eggs and process them into "egg products," and the USDA's FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) is responsible for their safety.

The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards for the eggs, such as Grade A. But it does not test the eggs for microbes such as salmonella.

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helps ensure the health of the young chicks that are supplied to egg farms.

But the FDA oversees the safety of the feed the chickens eat.

Streamlining federal bureaucracy: A case of the chicken and the reg 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 4:30am]
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