Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Food Safety Working Group: The First Fruits

July 7, 2009

Today's live briefing by Vice-President Biden, Health & Human Services Secretary Sibelius, and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has revealed the extent of the Obama Administration's commitment to addressing the complex issue of food safety.

The Food Safety Working Group ("FSWG") – launched on March 14, 2009 – has made more progress on food safety in the last four months than the Bush Administration did in its last four years. The Key Findings document released by FSWG contains a "To Do" list of more than a dozen priority projects, including at least one shovel-ready program – Reducing Salmonella In Eggs.

On September 22, 2004 – nearly five years ago – FDA proposed a new regulation to address the presence of Salmonella Enteritidis ("SE") in intact shell eggs. The agency held three public meetings, and opened its proposed regulation to extensive comment periods. The final comment period closed four years ago, on July 25, 2005.

Today, FDA announced that it was, at last, moving ahead with this new regulation. The Final Rule, which will appear in the Federal Register, takes effect 60 days after publication and sets out requirements that most egg producers will have to follow (small producers will be exempt).
These new mandates – some of them already being followed on a voluntary basis – include,

  • Developing and implementing a written SE prevention plan;
  • Pullets (young hens that will be used as layers) are to be raised in an environment that is monitored for SE;
  • Establishing an environmental control program to prevent cross-contamination between henhouses and farms;
  • Using rodent and pest control programs;
  • Cleaning and disinfecting henhouses after SE contamination is detected;
  • Mandatory environmental testing for SE at specified stages during the life of a laying flock;
  • Mandatory egg testing for SE when an environmental sample is SE-positive;
  • Maintenance of appropriate records; and
  • Registration with FDA.

Egg producers that maintain flocks of 50,000 or more hens must comply with this new regulation by July 9, 2010; smaller producers (with 3,000 - 50,000 hens) have an additional two years to bring their operations into compliance. Very small producers – those with 3,000 or fewer hens – are exempt from the provisions of this Final Rule.

The Food Safety Working Group announced ambitious targets for some of its other priority items, too:
  • USDA will develop new standards to reduce Salmonella in poultry by the end of this year, and will work to have 90% industry compliance with the new standards by the end of 2010;
  • FDA will issue draft guidance on preventing pathogen contamination on leafy green produce, melons and tomatoes by the end of this month;
  • FDA and USDA will work with industry and state governments this year to build a national trackback system that will speed up the process of tracing the source of foodborne illness outbreaks;
  • Government will begin, within 90 days, to enhance the www.foodsafety.gov website and introduce an individual alert system in order to deliver recall and alert messages into the hands of consumers more rapidly; and
  • FDA will create a new position of Deputy Commissioner for Foods by the end of this month.

So far, the Administration's approach is garnering support from both industry and consumer advocacy groups. "Today's recommendations by the White House Food Safety Working Group," said Grocery Manufacturers Association President & CEO Pamela Bailey in a statement released today, "are another example of President Obama's commitment to strengthening and modernizing our nation's food safety system."

Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the industry group United Fresh Produce Association, said in a written communiquĂ©, "The administration's plan embraces several key recommendations advanced by United Fresh to help ensure that food safety initiatives address produce industry priorities." And Jim O'Hara, Director of the Produce Safety Project – a food safety advocacy group based at Georgetown University – released the following statement:

"The Obama administration's commitment today to a produce safety rule is a significant public health victory for American families and farmers. Fresh fruits and vegetables are critical to a healthy lifestyle. With this rule consumers can have greater confidence in their fresh fruits and vegetables and growers and producers will have a uniform and science based road map on safety standards."

If today's activities are an indicator of future performance, we should be seeing a lot more action within the next 3-6 months. And President Obama's team might even fulfill his predecessor's empty boast that the United States has the world's safest food supply.

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