The peanut-related salmonella outbreak that led to the death of nine people and sickened thousands of others across the U.S. clearly underlines the need to modernize the nation’s food system by creating a “food safety czar.”

The current hodgepodge of federal and state regulations just doesn’t cut it. The New York Times nicely summed up the sad state of affairs in a Feb. 17 editorial called “Dangerous Food.”

The editors wrote: “Today’s patchwork system requires frozen pizzas to be inspected by two agencies: one if they’re cheese and another if they’re pepperoni.”

The Associated Press reported that a Texas processing plant of Peanut Corp. of America, the bankrupt company at the core of the salmonella scare, went unlicensed for nearly four years. Texas is one of the states that the Food and Drug Administration relies on state inspectors to oversee food safety.

Located in the sparsely populated Panhandle, the Texas facility was only inspected after salmonella was found in PCA’s Georgia plant. A Texas food safety official, Patrick Moore, told the AP he “was not aware this plant was in operation and did not know [the] type of products processed.”

Following more than a decade of federal deregulation, food safety is more or less based on an honor system in which producers police themselves. Those days will soon be over as President Obama and the Democratic Congress work to restore Washington’s regulatory muscle.

Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Rosa DeLauro are leading the charge for a food safety czar. They want a single agency responsible for food safety from point-of-origin to retail sale. They recommend combining the safety activities of the Dept. of Agriculture, FDA and other federal agencies into an integrated organization to provide better coordination and effective oversight. That food safety czar is especially important as we eat more food that is grown and raised overseas. Obama has put healthcare reform on his priority list. The safety of America’s food system is at the core of national health.

A food safety czar is good for PR pros. Ask the PR people who promote peanut butter if their clients would be breathing a lot easier today had a food safety czar been in place to head off the salmonella outbreak.

(Image: Restaurantlaw)