New Food Safety Agenda Emphasizes Prevention and Protection

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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 regulation.

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 States."

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 founder.

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. coli.

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 said.

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 agencies.


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