Sunday, December 21, 2008

Food Safety: Perpetual Policy Orphan

December 21, 2008

President-elect Obama has introduced his Cabinet nominees and major staff appointments, and has left Chicago for a two-week rest – admittedly well-earned – in Hawaii with his family.

We have met the new President's foreign policy team, his economic team, his energy/climate change team, his trade & commerce team, and the rest of the people who will be sitting around the Cabinet table.

We have been introduced to the incoming President's Energy Czarina, his Chief Science & Technology Advisor, and his Director of the new White House Office on Health Care Reform.

We can deduce – to some extent – from these appointments the new policy directions in which President-elect Obama hopes to lead the United States. But on one issue that affects the health of every US resident, the incoming President has remained silent.

There is no one at the Cabinet table to speak for food safety.

The responsibility for ensuring the microbiological and chemical safety of our food supply is shared among several federal departments, most prominently the Department of Health & Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. In each case, food safety is a Cinderella praying for her fairy godmother to save her from the ashes.

Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, the current FDA Commissioner, has already announced that he will resign effective Inauguration Day. His replacement will have a full plate replenishing an agency that has been bleeding expertise for the last eight years and more. The FDA's food safety enforcement activities represent only a small part of the agency's overall mandate.

The newly nominated Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, is a proponent of bioethanol, and was governor of an agricultural state. We haven't received a single hint of his attitude toward the food safety side of USDA – again only a small part of the department's mandate.

Food safety, once more, will be the orphan of US government policy – unless President-elect Obama gives this vital area a seat at the Cabinet table. There is precedent for this move.

Former President Clinton established a President's Council on Food Safety to review, and recommend improvements to, the country's food safety policies. The Council's recommendations, for the most part, have been gathering dust for the last eight years.

Please, Mr. President-elect. Give food safety policy a strong voice in your administration. Give those of us who care about food safety "Change We Can Believe In."

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