Food safety took center stage in Iowa yesterday as Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee participated in a food safety panel discussion at Drake University and the Pew Charitable Trusts released a study that found 90 percent of voting Iowans believes the government should be given additional authority to ensure the safety of the food supply.

During the panel discussion, sponsored by the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, Harkin noted that foodborne illness is a growing problem “particularly as people are incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into their diets,” adding that fresh fruits and vegetable are vulnerable in an already weak federal food inspection system.

“This is an issue I have focused on for some time now and I plan to continue to make a priority – it is time to fix our nation’s food safety system,” blogged Harkin after the event.

After hearing “heart-wrenching stories” from Iowan families who had lost loved ones to foodborne illness, Harkin noted that “these deaths could have been prevented through better food safety procedures and are a stark reminder of the importance of enacting federal food safety reform.”

The Pew study, released the same day, highlighted increased public support for stronger federal regulation in Iowa, a key agricultural state. The poll, conducted by Hart Research and Public Option Strategies, showed widespread support for stronger food protection “regardless of voter’s gender, income level, or political affiliation.”

According to the poll, 81 percent of Iowa voters believe the federal government should be responsible for ensuring the safety of the food supply.

“Iowans are very clear: the government needs to do more to ensure that our family members won’t get sick from the food on their dinner plates,” said Shelley A. Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group. “The take-away message from this is that the public gets it: our antiquated food safety laws greatly need updating so that Americans can have more confidence in the food supply.”

The increased attention to food safety in Iowa comes as the Senate is expected to consider foods safety legislation this fall, after the House of Representatives decisively passed reform legislation at the end of July. Harkin will likely be a key player in shaping the legislation as his agricultural constituents have a large stake in the regulation of food regulation.

Though momentum has been building for food safety legislation, Harkin reminded the panel audience that the Senate still has to grapple with health care reform this fall in what is sure to be a packed legislative session.