Secretary Vilsack raised a few eyebrows last winter when he called for the number of regulators overseeing the safety of the nation's food supply to be consolidated from about a dozen federal agencies down to one.
While it's doubtful the consolidation will go that far, a series of high-profile recalls now has Congress considering the most sweeping reforms of the nation's food safety system in the past 50 years.
Known as the Food Safety Enhancement Act, the measure would give the Food and Drug Administration broad new powers that could extend all the way to farm.
The House Energy and Commerce Sub-Committee on Health began hammering out legislation this week that would shift food safety oversight of meat products away from the Agriculture Department to the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA.
Currently, USDA oversees food safety for meat poultry and eggs. And the FDA regulates fruits, vegetables, processed foods and other products which cumulatively account for about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.
The push for more rigorous food safety standards comes in the wake of recent food scares over salmonella-tainted tomatoes, peppers and peanuts, which prompted national recalls.
The proposed "Food Safety Enhancement Act" would broaden FDA's oversight, granting the agency power to mandate, what are now "voluntary" recalls, and assess the costs of the action to the food's producer and/or processor.
The measure also would establish new standards on animal control and waste management, but its most controversial aspects are provisions authorizing FDA to conduct on-farm inspections, ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products.
According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, or NCBA, the FDA does not have the money, employees, or expertise to properly oversee the livestock and poultry industries.
Noting "the United States has the safest food supply in the world," NCBA officials caution, "Any changes to that system should be carefully considered to ensure they provide additional benefits without detracting from successful processes."
The Food Safety Enhancement Act would require better tracking of the origin of processed food. And meat producers would also have to label where feed sources originated and post that information into an electronic database.
The measure passed by voice vote out of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health Wednesday and is expected to go to the full Committee for markup next week.