Sunday, March 15, 2009

Food Safety Working Group: The Challenges

March 15, 2009

Yesterday, we welcomed, with a sense of relief and hopefulness, President Obama's announcement that he is establishing a Food Safety Working Group to develop and present him with recommendations for improving the US food safety system.

This new group will be co-chaired by two Cabinet members – Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary (nominee) Sibelius – and will include senior officials from departments and agencies that are involved in food safety regulation. We hope that it will also seek suggestions and recommendations from state, county and municipal food safety officials, as well as from other members of the food safety community – including eFoodAlert.

The country's food safety system, which already was under stress during the Clinton years, was allowed to deteriorate under the Bush Administration into its present – almost dysfunctional – state. Almost every part of the system is in need of repair, reconstruction or replenishment, beginning with the basic organizational architecture of today's interlocking and overlapping jurisdictions.
Here are just some of the questions that the Food Safety Working Group will need to address:

  • Is the current regulatory mandate (i.e., the laws and regulations), under which federal food safety agencies operate, adequate?
  • Should responsibility for food safety be consolidated into a single agency or cabinet level department, or should it remain divided among FDA, USDA, and other departments and agencies?
  • How can the safety of imported foods and ingredients best be assured?
  • How can cooperation between FDA, CDC and state agencies be improved to speed the recognition and investigation of food borne disease outbreaks?
  • Should the network of FDA and USDA regional laboratories be expanded, contracted, or remain unchanged?
  • How can FDA and USDA – as the two lead food safety agencies – become more proactive, rather than spending most of their resources responding to crises?
  • What can we learn from the experiences of other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, both of which revamped their respective food regulatory systems in the 1990's? 

The basic structure of the present US food safety system is more than one hundred years old. Congress passed both the original Food and Drugs Act and the first Meat Inspection Act in 1906. The country's food safety regulatory structure – like the country's income tax structure – has evolved willy-nilly by amendments and regulations.

Congressional Representative Rose DeLauro has introduced a new bill for consideration by the House of Representatives – H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. It has been referred to Committee. Before this bill proceeds too far down the legislative path, the Food Safety Working Group should be permitted to carry out its thorough bottom-up review.

Let's not present the President with a legislative fait-accompli before the Food Safety Working Group has a chance to do its job.

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