Obama Administration Takes Welcome Actions on Food Safety


Working Group Advances E. Coli, Salmonella Protections

July 7, 2009

WASHINGTON—The food safety working group created by President Barack Obama has directed the various government agencies involved in food safety to place new emphasis on preventing contamination—a move that the Center for Science in the Public Interest says bodes well for the reform legislation moving through Congress. And, says CSPI, it's an important sign that the current administration sees a more active role for government in ensuring the safety of food than previous ones.

For starters, the FDA announced that a long-awaited rule governing the safety of shell eggs has finally hatched.

"This is a good beginning for the Obama Administration when it comes to food safety," says CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "But it faces many tests of how quickly the administration can fix a weakened federal food safety structure and reverse course on policies wrongly decided under the Bush Administration. Congress must pass the Food Safety Enhancement Act to give the FDA the statutory foundation needed as well as increased financial resources to restore Americans' confidence in the safety of our food supply."

The working group proposed a series of specific activities to reduce the risk of Salmonella and deadly E. coli in the food supply. The recommendations cover FDA- and USDA-regulated foods including eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, leafy greens, melons, and tomatoes. The working group was chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Under the proposal, the two agencies will provide guidance to increase traceability in the food supply in advance of legislation requiring it. The working group also proposed steps to increase the effectiveness of outbreak surveillance among federal, state and local agencies in addition to using web-based social media to notify consumers of food safety problems.

In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg last week, CSPI urged the agency to reinstate a zero-tolerance policy for the lethal Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, which can grow in refrigerated soft cheeses, smoked seafood, and lunch meats; to require the shellfish industry to treat all Gulf Coast oysters harvested during warmer months to kill the deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria; and to strengthen its advice to vulnerable consumers on eating fish with high levels of methylmercury.

CSPI had long urged the FDA to finalize the egg rule announced today. That rule will require on-farm controls and expanded microbial testing to eliminate Salmonella Enteriditis in shell eggs. A version of that rule languished for years since CSPI first petitioned the FDA in 1998 to issue such a regulation.

In June, the Food Safety Enhancement Act cleared a key hurdle in the House of Representatives when it was voted unanimously out of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill, spearheaded by Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Chairman Emeritus John Dingell (D-MI), requires food processors to identify potential hazards and develop written action plans to prevent contamination. It also requires the FDA to conduct more frequent inspections of food processors and importers, and gives the agency the authority to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated food.

"For far too long, FDA has not had the staff, funding, or even the legal authority to get the job done," said DeWaal. "Things have gotten so bad that even the food industry is clamoring for reform, which is not surprising as consumer confidence in the food industry has fallen to less than 20 percent. But most important, American consumers face a never-ending stream of food- safety failures that result in having to avoid tainted fruits, vegetables, peanut butter, even cookie dough. The time for modernizing our federal food safety system is long overdue."

 

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