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A Look Back at Food Safety in Obama’s First Term

Today the United States celebrates its 57th presidential inauguration, kicking off President Barack Obama’s second term. Four years ago, a much younger-looking Obama was actually sworn into office amidst a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that would ultimately be linked to 700 illnesses and 9 deaths and lead to one of the largest product recalls in history.

“At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter,” Obama told the Today Show in February 2009, less than two weeks after being sworn in. The president noted that his daughter Sasha ate peanut butter sandwiches regularly and said he didn’t want to worry whether she would be sick “as a consequence to having her lunch.”

The president added, “We are going to make sure that we retool the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)], that it’s operating in a highly professional fashion and, most importantly, that we prevent these things, as opposed to trying to catch them after they’ve already occurred.”

A lot has happened since then.

The high-profile outbreak largely set the stage for the president’s most significant food safety achievement of his first term, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which aims to shift the U.S. food safety system from being reactive to preventive.

After a long debate in Congress — and with the support of a broad, bipartisan coalition, including consumer advocates and the food industry — Obama signed FSMA into law in January 2011. The law is widely hailed as the most significant update to the nation’s food regulatory system since the modern FDA was founded in 1938.

But, as Food Safety News has reported, there is still a long road ahead for implementing the ambitious new law and funding remains a serious challenge.

As Congress held hearings to look into the cause of the 2008-2009 peanut butter Salmonella fiasco, the Obama administration launched the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) with the aim of improving coordination between the many agencies and sub-agencies that have a hand in food safety, including the major players: the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the administration has faced major food safety-related criticisms in the first term — most notably for taking so long to nominate an Under Secretary for Food Safety, for sitting on key FSMA rules for a year, and for trying to reform poultry inspection — focus on food safety from the get-go fueled dozens of lower-profile policy changes that have made an impact, but received little attention in the media.

For example, the administration created a new position at FDA, Deputy Commissioner for Foods — where Michael Taylor now serves — to better organize and raise the profile of food issues within an agency that has long had a lopsided focus on drugs and medical devices. According to the FSWG, this new position is specifically “empowered to restructure and revitalize FDA’s work developing a new food safety system.”

The FDA also created the Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network, a new, multi-disciplinary outbreak team to help the agency respond to outbreaks more rapidly.

The first term has included several initiatives to modernize federal food safety efforts. FSIS launched the Public Health Information System (PHIS), a data analytics system that is supposed to help the agency better detect and respond to public health risks. The FDA has also employed tools like PREDICT (Predictive, Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting) to help use data for targeting limited inspection resources on food imports that are the most risky for American consumers.

Before FSMA cleared Congress, the agencies moved forward on a couple policies aimed at preventing contamination. In 2009, FDA issued an egg safety rule to control Salmonella Enteritidis in shell eggs, a policy that had been stalled for several years. The government estimated the rule, which took effect in 2010, will reduce the number of illnesses associated with raw or undercooked contaminated eggs by 79,000 annually, saving an estimated $1 billion.

FDA launched the Reportable Food Registry (RFR), a portal for the food industry and public health officials to report food safety problems. Food facilities are now required to report to the RFR if there is a reasonable probability that their product could sicken or kill people or their pets.

Last year, FSIS declared six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli adulterants in non-intact raw beef — the first time the agency had done so since E.coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant in 1994. The agency now has a testing program and a zero tolerance policy for these strains for ground beef, ground beef components, and tenderized steaks.

FSIS implemented its first-ever pathogen reduction performance standards for Campylobacter in poultry establishments and revised its performance standards for Salmonella, policies that the agency estimated would prevent about 65,000 illnesses annually.

In the past four years, the food safety agencies have also greatly increased the use of social media and the web by utilizing sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with consumers and stakeholders. Notably, the government launched www.foodsafety.gov, a redesigned and expanded site that combines information from all of the key agencies. The agencies also launched a major Ad Council advertising campaign to educate consumers about safe food handling practices.

Despite these initiatives, there continued to be a steady drumbeat of multistate foodborne illness outbreaks (as well as a major oil spill in 2010 that threatened seafood safety) during Obama’s first term. Peanut butter (again), cantaloupe (twice), tuna scrape, mangoes, dog food, and lettuce have all been implicated in outbreaks since Obama signed FSMA in January 2011. With budget constraints and an increasing workload at FDA, many food safety experts expect implementing FSMA will be the central food safety challenge of Obama’s second term.

 

© Food Safety News
  • Alliance_for_a_Stronger_FDA

    Helena—Great overview. Readers interested in becoming more active in advocating for better funding at FDA should look at the site: http://www.strengthenfda.org. 
    We are a multi-stakeholder group that has been instrumental in gaining more funding for the agency since our start in 2005. We would welcome more voices from consumers, patients, professional groups and industry on the importance of funding food safety at FDA (as well as better funding of FDA overall). Those with questions can write me at sgrossman@strengthenfda.org. With best regards for a happy, healthy and safe new year, Steven Grossman

  • CoalitionFor SensibleSafeguard

    In this new presidential term, responsible agencies and
    law-makers should make it a priority to write these lifesaving rules.

    There have been a number of improvements in food safety
    over the last four years which should be properly applauded. The passage of the
    Food Safety Modernization Act is a step in the right direction for improving
    food safety in the US, but regulators and policy-makers must be vigilant in
    finalizing rulemaking and getting laws into the books. The missed deadlines and
    industry pressure that have delayed the Dodd-Frank bill should serve as a
    warning: the safety of our food supply, just like the safety of our financial
    system and so many other aspects of American quality of life, relies on the
    timely implementation of legislation that has been voted on and approved by
    Congress.