Today’s Update on the Pet Food Recall—5/19/2007

As usual, there isn’t a great deal of news over the weekend. There’s a rather flaccid editorial from the Los Angeles Times on food safety that does have nubbin of interest:

In January, the GAO added food safety to its list of high-risk federal programs, noting that it’s scattered across 15 poorly coordinated agencies, including the FDA, the Federal Trade Commission and — naturally — the Department of Homeland Security. Less than 1% of food imports were inspected in 2006. The FDA, which bears 80% of the food safety burden, accounts for just 24% of food safety expenditures. It has no power to require recalls (that’s up to industry) and has little ability to track recalls already in progress. After the pet food debacle, President Bush appointed Dr. David Acheson to be FDA “food czar,” but few expect substantive results from the move.

The Safe Food Act would create a single agency that, unlike the FDA, could concentrate solely on food safety — standardizing inspection and recall standards across all food types and markets, more aggressively screening imports and so on. It’s a welcome acknowledgement that food safety needs to adapt to the 21st century.

The Food and Drug Administration is now more than a century old, established to solve the food and drug safety issues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My diagnosis-at-a-distance of the agency is that it, like most of our government, is now firmly moored to a 1950’s organizational and performance model. Matrix management (the “food czar”) is not a new concept, either, and it can be one that’s quite difficult for organizations to adapt to.

I’m certainly open to being corrected in my impressions of the FDA and government, generally. Please put your own thought in the comments. I’d especially like to hear from FDA employees and employees of other government agencies.

The LA Times editorial has given me an idea, though. Over the next few days, in addition to my regular updates on the pet food recall, I’ll be trying to think about the nature of enterprises in the 21st century and how these models pertain to government in the 21st century. As usual, your contributions are welcome.

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