Food safety reform is on the front burner in Washington, against the backdrop of numerous large-scale illness outbreaks and sustained criticism of obsolete federal statutes, inadequate resources, and fragmented organizations, all of which cripple the government’s response to outbreaks, and its ability to prevent problems in the first place.

National policy-makers naturally have focused their reform efforts on the key federal food safety agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Department of Agriculture (USDA); and reform in the federal food safety program is long overdue. These federal agencies are just the tip, however, of a much larger pyramid of state and local agencies working on food safety.

State and local health and agriculture departments have long been the foundation of the nation's food safety system, with primary responsibility for illness surveillance, response to outbreaks, and regulation of food safety in over one million restaurants and grocery stores. State and local agencies collectively conduct many more inspections, test many more food samples for harmful contamination, and bring many more food safety enforcement actions than the federal food safety agencies.

Food safety reform will not be complete—or successful—unless the efforts of these agencies are strengthened and integrated more fully into the national food safety system.

Since the 1990s, federal, state, and local agencies have expanded their collaboration in some areas—such as illness surveillance and inspection—and there exists today among food safety officials at all levels a widely shared vision of an integrated national food safety system that operates as a full partnership among federal, state, and local agencies. Such a system would place first priority on preventing foodborne illness, address food safety risks all across the farm-to-table spectrum, and make efficient, science-driven use of all government food safety resources. Achieving this vision of an integrated national food safety system requires building on past collaborations, but also real change in how federal, state, and local agencies understand their roles and relationships, how state and local agencies acquire the capacities to perform their roles, and how agencies at all levels can better interact as parts of an integrated food safety system.

This report recommends a series of actions to strengthen state and local roles in food safety and fulfill the vision of an integrated national food safety system. It is the product of a project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which brought together state and local officials, their federal counterparts, members of the food industry, and consumer groups to develop a reform agenda.