The Obama Administration today took a first step towards overhauling food safety regulations that have been blamed for a steady stream of food safety outbreaks and product recalls.
The new proposals, recommended by a working group President Obama created in March, emphasize prevention, enforcement and improving the government's response time to food safety outbreaks.
"There are few responsibilities more basic or more important for the government than making sure the food our families eat is safe, Vice President Joseph Biden said at a White House news conference where he was joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "American families have enough to worry about today. They should not have [food safety] as a concern."
Fears about food safety have been spurred by a series of national outbreaks of salmonella and E.coli in products as varied as peanuts, pistachios, spinach, tomatoes, peppers and, most recently, cookie dough. The complex and sometimes bizarre division of labor among the 15 federal agencies that oversee inspections is also a concern: The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for fresh eggs while the Department of Agriculture is responsible for egg products. Cheese pizzas are inspected by the FDA while meat-laden pepperoni pies go to the USDA.
The administration outlined a variety of measures to prevent the spread of salmonella, a bacteria that causes more than 1 million illnesses each year in the United States. The FDA issued a final rule to reduce the contamination in eggs, which the agency estimates will help reduce the number of foodborne illnesses associated with the consumption of raw or undercooked contaminated eggs by 79,000 or about 60 percent. It also will save more than $1 billion annually, Sebelius said.
The regulation has been a long time coming. President Bill Clinton first proposed similar regulations in 1999.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also committed to develop new standards to reduce the prevalence of salmonella in turkeys and poultry by the end of the year. It will also establish a salmonella verification program with the hopes that 90 percent of poultry establishments will meet the new standards by the end of 2010.
Both agencies also announced plans to tackle E.coli. FSIS will step up enforcement at meat processing plants and increase sampling that tests for the pathogen especially for ground beef. The FDA, which is responsible for fresh produce, will by the end of the month issue guidance on ways to reduce contamination in the production and distribution of tomatoes, melons and leafy greens.
The proposals also included new staff positions that will help agencies coordinate with one another. The FDA will hire a deputy commissioner for foods to oversee and coordinate its efforts on food, including food safety. FSIS will hire a new chief medical officer position to report to USDA's undersecretary for food safety.
On the whole, food safety advocates were pleased with the new initiatives. "We are coming out of a phase, just like in the financial sector, where the government was loathe to regulate," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Tougher controls earlier in the food chain will result in fewer recalls and fewer outbreaks."
"Part of the problem with how we currently deal with foodborne illness cases is we wait until people get sick and die and then we announce an outbreak," said Bill Marler, a veteran food safety litigator who writes an active blog about the issue. "It seems that the focus here is a bit on preventing it before we have sick and dead people as opposed to counting the bodies after salmonella or E. Coli is out of the barn."
Such changes are long overdue, advocates agree. Many key food safety regulations were inspired by the publication of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" in 1906. "While the law hasn't changed dramatically since then, our world has changed dramatically since then," Biden said. "It's not unusual for us to snack on vegetables from South America and pick up some fruit from the South Pacific and then go have dinner with beef from Brazil."
“Today’s announcement signals an important break from our past policy of making piecemeal changes to outdated laws," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) "These changes are a fundamental step towards comprehensive food safety reform.”
Still, many key changes will be left to Congress, including the controversial issue of giving federal agencies the authority to recall tainted products if a manufacturer refuses. This would also make it easier for consumers to find out where recalled food was sold.
Several bills have been introduced to tackle this and other issues not included in the working group's recommendations. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) want to give FDA the authority to recall tainted food, to "quarantine" suspect food, and to have the ability to impose civil penalties and increased criminal sanctions on safety violators. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) has proposed separating the agency's food safety responsibilities by establishing a new Food Safety Administration. In the Senate, Durbin hopes to give the agency a larger budget with more inspectors and stronger regulatory tools.