New Food Safety Agenda Emphasizes Prevention and
of Article: http://www.ombwatch.org/node/10200
Posted on July 14, 2009
The Obama administration unveiled a broad food safety
agenda July 7, pledging to recraft a national food safety system that
focuses on preventing, rather than reacting to, foodborne illness
outbreaks. The agenda includes a raft of new policies and longer-term
proposals that aim to empower officials and strengthen food safety
The new food safety agenda is the product of President
Obama's Food Safety Working Group, which was formed
in March. The working group's policy priorities were accompanied by a
set of key findings that emphasize prevention. "Preventing harm to
consumers is our first priority," the working group wrote. "Key
to this approach is setting rigorous standards for food safety and
providing regulatory agencies the tools necessary to ensure that the food
industry meets these standards."
The emphasis on prevention marks a dramatic shift in
the way food safety, and government regulation at large, has been pursued
in recent years. The Bush administration preferred a
more conservative, market-based approach to regulation, leaving industry to
sort out controls and methods of prevention.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack chair the working group. Other
agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Homeland
Security, participate in the working group.
The administration announced several new standards
that aim to prevent food contamination and outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized a regulation that will reduce the risk of salmonella
contamination posed by shell eggs. The agency estimates the new regulation
will prevent 79,000 illnesses and 30 deaths every year. The regulation was
published July 9 and will go into effect Sept. 8.
According to the Center for
Science in the Public Interest, the new rule "will require on-farm
controls and expanded microbial testing to eliminate" salmonella
contamination in eggs. The rule also requires producers to keep better
records and to develop and implement a salmonella prevention plan. FDA
estimates the regulation will cost producers $81 million per year, which
amounts to "less than 1 cent per dozen eggs produced in the United
The salmonella standard has been under
development for more than a decade. The Clinton administration
published a public notice on the issue in 1998, and the Bush administration
formally proposed the rule in 2004 but then allowed the rulemaking to
The Obama administration will also address salmonella
contamination in poultry and turkey. The Food Safety and Inspection Service
(FSIS) – the food safety arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
and regulator of meat products – will by year's end issue new standards to
reduce the risk of salmonella.
Other standards were placed on a longer-term agenda
and appear less concrete. The FDA will soon issue "commodity-specific
draft guidance on preventive controls that industry can implement to reduce
the risk of microbial contamination in the production and distribution of
tomatoes, melons, and leafy greens," which could prevent outbreaks of E.
However, guidance does not have the force of law the
way regulation does. The administration says mandatory standards will come
later: "Over the next two years, FDA will seek public comment and work
to require adoption of these approaches through regulation."
In addition to new regulations, Obama's food safety
plan also aims to expand regulators' capacity to investigate foodborne illness
outbreaks and trace those outbreaks back to the offending product or food
facility. The administration pledged to give investigators new tools to
better monitor the food supply, including a new "incident command
system," which "will link all relevant agencies, as well as state
and local governments, more effectively to facilitate communication and
decision-making in an emergency."
In addition, FDA will ask the food industry to
implement measures to improve product tracing. Currently, officials often cannot
quickly determine the origin of a contaminated product because of
supply-chain complexities or poor recordkeeping.
However, leaving the responsibility for tracing in
the hands of the food industry may not yield significant improvements. Two
recent foodborne illness outbreaks illuminate the complexity of tracking
food through multiple handlers and facilities and detecting the point of
contamination. In the summer of 2008, an outbreak of a rare strain of
salmonella was initially blamed on tomatoes, prompting retailers and
restaurants to pull the product; however, months later, officials
identified Mexican-grown jalapeño peppers as the culprit.
Investigators are currently struggling to solve a
mystery surrounding E. coli-contaminated cookie dough. The outbreak
was traced to a Nestlé plant in Danville, VA, but investigators have been unable to pinpoint the source of the
contamination or the exact strain of E. coli responsible. The
incident also sparked a controversy when the FDA revealed that Nestle
had for several years refused to provide the agency with information about
the company's food safety practices.
The administration also pledged to improve
on-the-ground enforcement. FSIS is instructing its inspectors to more
aggressively ensure "that establishments handling beef are acting to
reduce the presence of E. coli."
The Food Safety Working Group is also addressing
organizational issues. The working group will continue to operate in order
to coordinate food safety issues across the federal government, and it will
aim to clarify responsibilities among agencies. Although FDA and FSIS carry
most of the responsibility for food safety issues, "at least a dozen
Federal agencies, implementing at least 30 different laws, have roles in
overseeing the safety of the nation's food supply," the working group
If implemented as written, the administration's plan
would mend several of the major holes in the nation's food safety net while
Congress works on a more comprehensive overhaul. Both the House and the
Senate are considering bills that would help federal regulators better
prevent and control foodborne illness outbreaks. For example, lawmakers are
considering giving FDA the authority to order companies to recall
contaminated food, a power the agency currently lacks. A House bill would
also improve traceback mechanisms.
However, reform efforts are moving slowly while
competing with other priorities on Capitol Hill. The House bill, the Food
Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2749), cleared a major hurdle June 17 when it was
approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, clearing the way for a
debate before the full chamber. Several bills addressing food safety
improvements were introduced in the Senate early in the 111th Congress but
have languished in the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee and
the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Congress is poised to fulfill Obama's request to increase
funding for both FDA and FSIS. The House approved a spending bill for FY
2010 that would boost FDA's funding 14 percent to about $3 billion. The
bill would also give FSIS a 4.5 percent increase. However, Obama's budget
request indicates the funding increase at FSIS will only provide for an
additional 25 employees – a less-than-one-percent increase in staff. The
Senate Appropriations Committee approved identical levels for both