Food Safety Moves To Forefront

October 29, 2009

And now from The Food Institute…

And now from The Food Institute…

The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions  or HELP Committee held a hearing on food safety entitled Keeping America’s Families Safe: reforming the Food Safety System at which Senator Dick Durbin’s food safety bill as well as the current state of food safety in the U.S. was discussed.

The Committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat from Iowa, pressed the Senate to pass Senate Bill 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, within the next two months and then reconcile it with a House food safety bill so that the process of reforming the food Safety system gets underway quickly. Reconciling the two bills may not be so simple, according to The Food Institute, which notes that while they have many similarities, there are numerous sticking points, including exactly how these measures will be funded.

Chairman Harkin opened the hearing by discussing the foodborne illness outbreaks that have occurred over the past several years. He stated that these devastating occurrences give evidence to the need for reforming the current system. He mentioned the beneficial steps that have already been taken, citing the Administration’s Food Safety Working Group, but stated that not enough progress has been made. He closed by asserting that there are not frequent enough visits to a sufficient number of food production and handling facilities, and that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs more resources to effectively fulfill its responsibilities.

The issue of inspections was reviewed in a recent report from The Government Accountability Office entitled Agencies Need to Address Gaps in Enforcement and Collaboration to Enhance Safety of Imported Food.  

According to statistics in the report, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service inspected just 9.4% of food imported at U.S ports in 2008, down from 10.2% in 2007 and 14.7% in 2006. FDA, meanwhile, physically inspected just 1.31% of food imports last year, consistent with levels inspected in 2006 and 2007.

Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin discussed the bipartisan Senate Bill he authored with New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg. He told the story of Nancy Donnelly, whose son died of food poisoning, and cited statistics stating that this type of tragedy occurs to 13 people each day. Senator Durbin also discussed aspects of the spinach recall, the mistaken tomato recall, and the peanut butter recall, pointing out provisions in S. 510 that would address many of the problems brought to light by those events.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg spoke of President Obama’s commitment to the issue of food safety, citing the time and effort put in by the Food Safety Working Group to reach the three overarching goals of food safety reform: increased focus on prevention; increased surveillance and enforcement; and more rapid recovery of adulterated or contaminated product. She asserted that the Senate bill includes many provisions to assist in furthering these goals, and spoke specifically to whether or not the bill focuses on prevention, gives FDA authority needed for proper enforcement, and provides the necessary sustainable resources to FDA.

However, she asserts that provisions regarding record access could be strengthened, as well as the distinction between “adulterated” and “prohibited action.” Dr. Hamburg stated that the bill targets resources using risk-based inspection, but should include a guaranteed funding source such as registration fees and specific language authorizing third-party certifiers.

Mr. Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, discussed the actions that the produce industry took following the spinach outbreak. He stated that the industry took a comprehensive look at best practices, and is currently working hard to develop complete traceability and global growing standards. Mr. Stenzel mentioned that his association is calling for three general principles for food safety reform: flexibility – a one-size-fits-all approach will not work; cooperation – FDA must work with the states and stakeholders; and outbreak management – the spinach and tomato industries are still hurting from the failures from the past. He concluded by urging the Committee not to water down the legislation out of concern for small and organic farmers, citing assertions by his members who farm those types of farms that they are willing to do whatever it takes to comply.

Thus it appears that the issue of food safety is moving to the forefront of the legislative agenda, but it remains to be seen how quickly competing food safety legislation from the Senate and the House of representatives will be reconciled, and exactly how it will be financed.

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