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White House Touts Progress on Food Safety

President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group is making progress, but more work needs to be done, according to a new report by the Administration.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a progress report Wednesday, highlighting areas of the initiative they say are working. The president’s Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) was launched after the deadly Salmonella peanut butter outbreak in late 2008, early 2009.

“As families across the country share in this holiday season, it is important to reiterate our commitment to protecting the food supply and our desire to remain vigilant to protect the American people,” said Vilsack. “We have taken a number of steps to improve the safety of America’s meat and poultry supply in recent years and the President’s Food Safety Working Group has proven to be a vital component to our work.”

The press conference pointed to a number of recent successes: the FDA implemented the Egg Safety Rule in 2010; the FDA, in partnership with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, established a Produce Safety Alliance at Cornell University to develop educational and training materials for growers of all sizes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s comprehensive estimates show that E. coli illnesses have been reduced by almost half.

The FSWG also chronicled efforts made over the three years by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The agency set new Salmonella standards for poultry establishments, which may prevent as many as 25,000 foodborne illnesses annually. FSIS also announced a zero tolerance policy for six additional strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), which will launch in March 2012, and a “test and hold” policy that requires facilities to hold product until microbiological testing can determine it is safe to release into commerce.

USDA estimates the new program would have prevented 44 Class I recalls since 2007.

The White House called the working group’s accomplishments thus far “a large down payment on a stronger food safety system.”

“We’re well on our way to building a modern food safety system,” said Sebelius. “Today’s report shows we’ve made progress…”

Vilsack, whose department is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products, said that while much progress has been made “a lot of work is yet to be done.”

Consumer groups praised the progress that has been made, but outlined areas of need. 

“The litany of new acronyms for the task forces and interagency consultations that are described in the Obama Administration’s new Progress Report on Food Safety is worthy of a good spy novel: from SIP to CORE; from ICAT to CalciNet,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“It shows both the high level of attention that the Administration has paid to addressing food safety and the challenge when numerous federal and state agencies must work together during outbreaks and other critical food events. The report documents important improvements that have been made in the food safety system, especially with the adoption and implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” continued DeWaal. “However, with so many agencies involved, lapses can easily occur in the absence of strong leadership. It is promising to see the continuation of the Food Safety Working Group, which was established by President Obama early in his administration.”

The full report is available here.

© Food Safety News