Which came first, the USDA or FDA?

While the outrage over salmonella-tainted eggs was rightly focused on Congress’ failure to pass long-overdue food safety legislation and the Food and Drug Administration’s refusal to require vaccination of chickens, something equally appalling but less noticed had been going on at the two Iowa egg farms involved. Even though U.S. Department of Agriculture employees worked full time at both filthy facilities, there was no word from them about the rodents, maggots and piles of leaking manure.

The USDA employees weren’t there as food safety inspectors. They graded eggs, and though many consumers might think that a stamp of “Grade A” means eggs are safe to eat, it’s really no more than an indication that eggs aren’t misshapen, that “large” eggs are in fact large, and that white-shelled eggs haven’t been placed in the same carton as brown. It wasn’t their job to look for unsafe conditions outside the egg-packaging operations, even if they were just several dozen feet away. Former workers at the farms said the USDA employees ignored their complaints.

The fact that there were federal food examiners on site yet they had nothing to say about the dangerous filth around them offers a jarring reminder of the bizarre division of food responsibilities between the FDA and the USDA, a confusing list of contradictory missions that currently pending legislation would do nothing to fix.

The USDA, for example, is in charge of food safety when it comes to the hens, but the FDA is responsible for the safety of the eggs — except when they’re out of the shell, when the USDA takes over. The sausage that goes on pizzas is the responsibility of the USDA until it’s actually on the pizza, at which point it’s the FDA’s. The FDA oversees seafood, and the USDA oversees meat — not only monitoring meat safety but promoting U.S. meat products. The USDA inspects 20% of the food we eat but gets most of the food safety budget.

This is bad for taxpayers — what could be more wasteful than having a full-time federal employee at an egg farm if that person doesn’t take a regular look around for potential health violations? — and bad for consumer safety. The bureaucracy would be smaller and dollars could be more efficiently spent if one agency oversaw food safety, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended six years ago. Marketing U.S. agriculture should fall under another agency altogether. Consumers should be confident that their food is overseen by officials whose sole concern is protecting public health.