Congressional auditors with the General Accounting Office (GAO, Washington) believe the current safety climate warrants a change in federal food safety measures and agencies. With issues such as Mad Cow disease (BSE) and the potential for terrorist attacks upon the nation's food supply, the GAO believes now may be the time for a single federal food safety agency.

Lawrence J. Dyckman, director of natural resources and environment for the GAO, blames problems in the food safety landscape for the BSE cow found in Washington state late last year. Testifying before the House Government Reform Committee's subcommittee on agency organization, Dyckman regarded the food supply as “generally safe” but believed the “patchwork” system of a dozen agencies is not sufficient protection against new threats.

Food industry groups, the Agriculture Department (Washington) and FDA (Rockville, Md.) officials have supported tight coordination among food safety agencies and believe these measures are capable of handling threats which spread across their jurisdictions. Acknowledging the steps of the Agriculture Department and FDA, the GAO suspects the agencies are not sure they have clear authority to regulate all aspects of security. GAO auditors believe neither agency is capable of assessing the extent to which food processors are following the security guidelines set forth since September 11, 2001.

A unified food regulatory body has been a topic of debate for years, but Dyckman believes the U.S. Mad Cow incident and the terrorist threat to this nation's food supply may prompt Congress to renew the topic. Dyckman is a strong proponent of a unified safety body, arguing that Congress, at the very least, should consider consolidating food safety protection functions under an existing agency, possibly the FDA.

In 2002, a White House advisory committee reviewed the possibility of a single food protection agency but ultimately concluded that food safety oversight would better enhance food safety. According to Robert E. Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the various food safety agencies are “working effectively together now.” (The GAO report can be accessed at items/d04588t.pdf.)

A Qualified Label

For the first time, the FDA is allowing producers of a food to mention health claims based on promising, but not conclusive, scientific testing. Thanks to the new permission, walnuts now may be promoted as helpful in warding off heart disease. The FDA is reviewing similar health claims for other nuts, and action is expected soon.

To make a qualified claim on a conventional food, credible scientific evidence must support the claim. The FDA has based the qualified health claim for walnuts on an evaluation of available scientific data, as set forth in FDA's “Interim Procedures for Qualified Health Claims in the Labeling of Conventional Human Food and Human Dietary Supplements.” While the research into walnuts is not conclusive, consumers may benefit from information that could help them improve their dietary health, believes the FDA.

Whole and chopped walnuts are allowed to carry the following label: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces of walnuts per day, as part of a low-saturated-fat and low-cholesterol diet, and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” (The qualified health claim may be accessed at nuts3.html.)