WASHINGTON -- A White House food safety task force will continue to study structural changes to "strengthen the federal food safety system" but stopped short of endorsing a recommendation for a single food safety chief.

The President's Council on Food Safety, in a report released Monday, made clear that establishing a single voice on food safety issues posed challenges in some areas."Foodborne disease problems may also be waterborne disease problems," said the council, which is made up of officials from the departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Health and Human Services. "Other programs, particularly research and education programs for food safety, often do not operate as separate activities within the agencies but rather draw on the strength from one another."

The National Academy of Sciences in August issued a report, saying that "Congress should establish a unified, central framework for managing food safety programs, headed by one official with control of resources for all federal food safety activities."

President Clinton created the council to review the report's findings and develop a national strategy.

The NAS report gave examples such as a food safety council with a chair appointed by the president with control of all resources; a lead agency for food safety and an independent food safety agency at cabinet level.

Critics, including some lawmakers and consumer groups, have complained about the current fragmented system of 12 agencies with various food safety issues.

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Most food safety responsibilities are handled by the Agriculture Department, which is in charge of meat and poultry and certain fresh produce issues, and the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees other foods. But agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Commerce Department also have a role.

The council said development of a national strategy to address food safety is already underway.

"The council is confident that its comprehensive strategic plan will be a major step toward creating a seamless food safety system," the report said.

While U.S. food is considered the world's safest, up to 9,000 Americans die every year from food poisoning, and millions are sickened.

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