updated 2/6/2009 6:58:42 PM ET 2009-02-06T23:58:42

The peanut recall offers a prime opportunity to merge all federal food safety oversight into one agency, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday.

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Right now, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture share oversight responsibilities, along with other government agencies, dividing authority along lines that don't always make sense. For example, the FDA oversees eggs in the shell, while the Agriculture Department is responsible for processed egg products.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency share some food oversight as well.

"You can't have two systems and be able to reassure people you've got the job covered," Vilsack said. "This is a grand opportunity for us to take a step back and rethink our approach."

A salmonella outbreak blamed on Peanut Corp. of America has sickened at least 575 people in 43 states. At least eight have died. More than 1,300 foods that used ingredients from the company's processing plant in Blakely, Ga., have been recalled. While the outbreak appears to be slowing down, new illnesses are still being reported.

The FDA is responsible for inspecting peanuts, but some Agriculture Department auditors visited the plant to review records, according to the department.

Vilsack said he isn't sure what his department could have done differently under the circumstances.

Several members of Congress — including Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn, who heads the House subcommittee that oversees agriculture spending, and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democratic leader — have pushed unsuccessfully for a single food safety agency for years. The Bush administration never addressed the issue.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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