Obama Administration Pushing Broad Food Safety Agenda

The Obama administration has announced major steps aimed at improving the safety of the nation’s food supply. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Vice President Joe Biden announced the agenda at press conference this afternoon.

Among the reforms, the Food and Drug Administration will issue a final regulation to prevent eggs from becoming contaminated with salmonella. The rule has been in the works for more than a decade.

produceEvery year, more than one-hundred thousand people become ill, and dozens die, after ingesting undercooked eggs. The FDA says, “[The] regulation [is] expected to prevent each year 79,000 cases of foodborne illness and 30 deaths.” FDA estimates the regulation will cost producers $81 million per year. While that seems like a lot, it translates to “less than 1 cent per dozen eggs produced in the United States.”

The administration will also try to make headway in reducing the number of illnesses caused by E. coli. For example, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will more aggressively inspect beef facilities, according to the officials.

Today’s announcement is the work product of President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group formed in March. The working group released summaries of its key findings and proposed new policies.

The working group findings and recommendations are largely couched in terms of preventing foodborne illness. “Preventing harm to consumers is our first priority,” the group writes. While that seems like common sense, it’s still a welcome statement, especially when considering the Bush administration’s laissez faire approach to consumer safety.

Not all the reforms will yield immediate or significant results. A major problem with the food safety system is the lack of adequate traceback mechanisms. Officials often cannot quickly determine the origin of a contaminated product because of supply-chain complexities and/or poor recordkeeping. The working group says, “FDA will issue draft guidance on steps the food industry can take to establish product tracing systems improving our national capacity for detecting the origins of foodborne illness.” Guidance, which does not have the force of law like regulation does, crafted by industry is not likely adequately empower investigators.

But regardless of the strength of the reforms, we should not take for granted the attention senior administration officials are paying to food safety issues. In March, Obama used his weekly address to discuss food safety, and now, the Vice President and two cabinet secretaries are making it a high priority. The White House is using its pulpit to preach the value of prevention and consumer protection. That’s a pretty big deal.

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