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Some Emerging Food Safety Issues for 2011

Congress and the States

Last year, waiting and watching for the 111th Congress to hatch a new food safety bill was the dominant food safety news story. 

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Congress will continue to make food safety news in 2011, but mostly through oversight and appropriations activities.

The window that was open for reform in the last session of Congress has now closed. No single federal food agency will be created, and USDA’s regulation of beef, pork, poultry and egg production will go unchallenged.   

States are antsy about a number of food safety issues.  More exemptions from regulation of small scale food producers, more loopholes for raw milk, and more pressure to accept state-inspected small meat plants are all possibilities for statehouse action.

Regulations & Enforcement

After the poor job it did implementing the new egg rule in 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be closely watched as it puts the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act into effect.

FDA will have a skeptical Republican majority in the House of Representatives looking over its shoulder.    

In taking on new powers and responsibilities, doubling the number of staff working on food enforcement, and further extending its reach over importers, the inward-looking FDA could have more outward challenges than it can easily handle.

At USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the new Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen will be tested.

In 2010, FSIS began treating one non-O157 enterohemorrhagic shiga toxin-producing serotype of Escherichia coli (E. coli) as an adulterant. That means if E. coli tests are positive for either O157:H7, which has been considered an adulterant in meat for the past 15 years, or 026, which was responsible for a 8,500 pound recall last August by Cargill, the meat should be recalled.

However, FSIS has yet to rule on a petition calling for a half dozen non-O157 strains of E. coli, including 026, to be formally declared as adulterants in meat.  That hot potato is now on Hagen’s desk.

FSIS, under the 2008 Farm Bill, is suppose to take over regulation of catfish from FDA, but the Obama Administration has been dragging its feet, reportedly over fears of upsetting Asian trade partners.  Congress is, however, keeping the heat on to have its way, and Hagen will find herself in the middle of that dispute.

Also in the Farm Bill was a provision calling for FSIS to find a way to allow state-inspected meat plants to sell their products beyond state boundaries.  Regulations to make that happen have yet to be issued by FSIS.  

That’s also on Hagen’s to-do list.

Obesity

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, is charged in the new Child Nutrition Bill with establishing nutritional standards for the nation’s schools in 2011.  The standards he sets will apply to all food in the school, including the vending machines, if the schools want an increase in their federal lunch subsidy.

With the military and the schools paying attention to healthy food, it’s clear the nation’s obesity problem has gone critical.   

First Lady Michelle Obama, with her “Let’s Move” campaign and the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is helping to make this change. 

GM Crops

After finally getting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) out to cover genetically modified alfalfa, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack followed up in late 2010 with an open letter to those interested in GM crops.  He wants everybody to get along.

Or as Vilsack put it, he wants “a new paradigm of coexistence and cooperation.”

USDA’s problem with GM crops has been process.  Its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has deregulated GM plants without enough study to pass a smell test by federal judges, leaving the products snarled in litigation.

Vilsack’s letter, however, defended USDA’s process decision and said he has no doubts about the safety of the GM crops.

If in 2011, Vilsack can use his call for “common ground” to bring about a fair and predictable process, maybe he could get this issue out of the courts.

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