(Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed bringing together the country's food safety operations into one agency to better monitor food quality in a move that would reshape the Food and Drug Administration.
The proposal was put forward as part of the President's 2016 budget plan. The new agency would combine the food safety responsibilities of the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies.
"A single Federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses," the budget proposal noted.
The President's proposal reflects provisions in draft bill introduced last month by Democratic Senator Richard Durbin from Illinois and Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut. The bill, introduced as the Safe Food Act of 2015, is designed to improve safety at a time more and more food is being sourced from overseas.
Each year, 48 million people, or 1 in 6 Americans, suffer from foodborne illness. More than 100,000 are hospitalized and thousands die, according to federal data.
In January 2011, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law. The goal was to shift the focus of regulators to preventing contamination rather than just responding to it.
Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA, declined to say whether such a move would be supported by FDA officials.
"It depends on how it's done," he said.
While recognizing that food safety is fragmented, he said, the FDA will focus on implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act "while Congress considers what the President has proposed."
Currently most of the responsibility for food safety lies with the FDA. The Department of Agriculture oversees meat, poultry and processed eggs.
The President's proposal calls for a single agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency would be independent from the FDA and would be responsible for food safety inspections, enforcement, applied research and responses to food-poisoning outbreaks.
Reporting by Toni Clarke in Washington; editing by Andrew Hay