Jean Halloran has been working hard to make the food on your plate safer for over 25 years. As the Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, Halloran promotes food safety, sustainable consumption, and trade policy improvements.  She is responsible for developing policy on a wide variety of food-related issues, including mercury in fish, produce safety, biotechnology, and mad cow disease prevention. As the former Director of the Consumers Union Consumer Policy Institute, Halloran also worked on toxic chemicals, pesticides, and health care issues, among other consumer concerns.

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Food Safety News had a chance to chat with Halloran about her food safety work and the push for stronger food safety legislation in Congress.

Q: What’s Consumer Union’s (CU) involvement on the push for the Senate food safety bill?

A: CU, for years has been concerned about the safety of the products FDA regulates. The food side of FDA has been decimated over a couple of decades and in the last couple of years reap the consequences of that. The first big case that really highlighted this was the spinach problem in 2006, where over a thousand people got sick and ultimately three people died.

FDA had been writing nice letters for ten years, to the leafy green industry in California, saying ‘you have problems, you have problems, you have problems,’ and they just got worse and worse. We think you need mandatory regulation for leafy growers. This is a food you eat raw, so it has to not have these terrible pathogens on the farm.

Q: Consumer’s Union recently came out against the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA) expanding nationwide, can you explain what policies you’d like to see in place to ensure leafy green safety?

A: Interestingly, we opposed the [LGMA] agreement from the very beginning. It’s not that we’re against voluntary efforts–in fact we need voluntary efforts–but the marketing agreement has become a substitute for proper federal regulation. When you do your standards controlled by the processors, the handlers you can get all sorts of problems. One is that they have clearly failed to adequately factor in environmental concerns and issues. I think it’s very clear that you can do what you need to for food safety and also protect the environment and water quality.

But for a leafy green handler, he’s only concerned about his leafy greens. He’s not concerned about the water quality downstream from the farm, that’s not his issue. That’s why you need a government agency who can look at the whole picture and find solutions that work for everybody. 

Now the legislation in Congress requires FDA to set regulations. We think this the way you do it.

Q: Do you worry about the small farmer push back on the Senate food safety bill? There was certainly some anger over this idea of “one fits all solution” regulation. How do you see these concerns playing out as the bill moves forward?

A: There was a lot of concern from that community, but a number of modifications were made to the House bill to address those concerns, I think, probably not enough in the end to make that community completely happy. But I know those folks are bringing up those issues in the Senate. 

Some of the things that were put in the House bill, we are in favor of putting in the Senate bill. There should be an explicit direction to FDA when they are establishing regulations to consider small farms, biological diversity, organic rules, and animals of significant concerns in setting their standards. And they should be able to coordinate with the USDA and through the Secretary of USDA with the organic rules.

Q: But you’re confident those issues will be resolved as the process continues?

A: We certainly expect that they will. But, you know, strange things can happen! You can never say what the Senate will do ahead of time. We think there is an excellent likelihood that those concerns will be addressed in the Senate bill in a way that is satisfactory to both the organic community and consumer concerns. It is certainly possible to do it.

Q: There is a lot of talk about the timing of the bill. Are you still feeling hopeful that the bill will be rushed through before Christmas?

A: I wouldn’t exactly call it rushed through. I mean, they have had these bills in there for at least a decade. And Durbin’s bill was introduced early last year. 

Q: Right, but there is some concern that after health care, a bill would have to be rushed to be complete before recess…It seems like some staffers are concerned about it.

A: You’re right there are certainly staffers who would see getting a bill through before Christmas as a rush, and we’re very sensitive to the difficulty in getting a health care bill through. But we do think that the Senate could do this. As bills go, this one is way less controversial. We would hope that the Senate would not be paralyzed in terms of moving on an important and relatively non-controversial bill that already has bipartisan support.

We think they can do it, we think its realistic, and we’re hopeful about it. And from what we’re hearing from staff, it does seem like its a reasonable goal to get this through by the end of the year.

That’s certainly what we’re shooting for. We’re shooting for getting it through by Thanksgiving, we think that would be a great way to celebrate the national day of feasting…

Q: So you’ve been working on food safety for a long time, do you feel like big change is really possible this year?

A: Yes. The House bill was a big breakthrough. A big breakthrough. It has a lot of really important things in it. The mandatory inspection frequency is, for us, the absolute centerpiece of this. Requiring high-risk facilities to be inspected once a year that just has to happen, we can’t have this once-every-ten-years set up that we have now, or we will just keep getting Peanut Corporation of America repeats.

FDA needs resources to be able to do these things. We support the fee structure as well.

We also think some sort of graduated or tiered structure that would be more fair to the small producers [on fees] would be something we would support. I don’t know if that’s possible, but thats where we would stand on that.

Q: It’s been a long push for stronger food safety laws. How have we gotten to this point–where it looks like Congressional action is a very real possibility?

A: Well, it’s taken a couple of horrible incidents to make everybody look at the situation. The first was the spinach and then it was the peanut butter. We’ve had pistachios and cookie dough along the way. There have been enough, I think, where people finally look at the situation and say “Oh yea, we really did take away all of FDA’s inspection staff. Maybe once every 10 years isn’t good enough…” “Oh there are some industries who don’t just do the right thing spontaneously..”

We’ve had to look at that and I think everyone now agrees we need to act.

I think there is now a consensus from a very substantial part of the grower and producer community as well as the processor community that they pay a penalty for rogue operators in their midst, and that they would be better off if there were standards and a cop on the beat to prevent rogue operators from hurting everybody.

They lose hundreds of millions of dollars whenever there is one of these big horrible outbreaks, where FDA has to say don’t eat ____ f ill in the blank for weeks on end. They lose money and its usually because of one guy in one place.

Photo: Jean Halloran, pictured left, on a panel with Stephen Sundlof, Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) at the National Food Policy Conference in September.