Key food safety officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services emphasized the need for stronger food safety laws last week before back to back food policy conferences in Washington, DC.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Margaret Hamburg, and Undersecretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan all delivered keynote addresses focused on food safety and children’s nutrition last week–both issues Congress is set to address in the next year.
The speeches made clear the Obama Administration’s intention to reform food policy–from promoting local and regional food, to putting more fruits and veggies in schools, to making the food supply safer.
Commissioner Hamburg started off the string of speeches with her remarks at the 32nd Annual National Food Policy Conference, jointly sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, speaking to the need for a reformed food safety system.
“Certainly it is time to overhaul our current and inadequate food safety system. The system is complex and global, and as a nation we have been late in recognizing its many shortcomings. This has not been a trivial failing, and we have seen the consequences in many ways,” said Hamburg.
Shifting from reaction to prevention
Each of the speeches emphasized the need to shift to a new public health strategy focused on prevention.
“We are pressing forward with a new agenda: to shift the agency’s emphasis away from mitigating public health harm by removing unsafe products from the marketplace, to a new overriding objective. And that objective is to prevent harm by keeping unsafe food from entering commerce in the first place,” added Hamburg, who noted that the agency would adopt the Food Safety Working Group’s core principles: prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery if prevention fails.
“We need to be proactive and prevent the crises from happening in the first place… we’re going to focus relentlessly on prevention,” reiterated Sebelius in her address before the conference.
In addition to highlighting the public health costs of the ailing food safety system, each of the official remarks pointed to the economic consequences of foodborne illness outbreaks.
Vilsack emphasized this point before an audience the United Fresh Produce Association’s annual public policy conference last week.
“Food safety is about preserving not just the safety and quality…its also about preserving the market. We all know that if you have a single problem with a single crop in a single state or a single area it doesn’t just simply, unfortunately, affect that one producer. It can affect the entire market. And so it’s important for us to be serious about food safety,” said Vilsack, who also noted the Administration’s strategies for prevention.
Sebelius tied public health consequences to economic costs as well. “We cant afford to be reactive when it comes to public health, we cant sit back and wait for the dangerous outbreak or the epidemic and then do something.”
“The toll is too great on human life and, frankly, it’s too great on the industry and the manufacturers who bear the brunt…of the economy when the public reacts,” added Sebelius.
System needs to be fixed
As Merrigan sees it, the messages from last week are “consistent and reinforcing” because there is an unprecedented level of interagency coordination on food issues.
Though the American people may not know the various jurisdictions and responsibilities of the federal food safety system, explained Merrigan, “They do no know that they had to throw awa pistachio products, they’ve been afraid to send their kids to school with peanut butter sandwiches because bad peanut products cost nine people their lives.”
“It’s clear that the current system isn’t working for America’s families,” said Merrigan.