PART I: On the status of Senate food safety bill, the engagement between consumer and small/sustainable agriculture groups, and President Obama’s food safety education: A conversation with CSPI’s Caroline Smith DeWaal.

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Caroline Smith DeWaal is one of the most important forces in food safety policy. As director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy organization inside the beltway, Smith DeWaal has worked tirelessly to reform the food safety system both at home and abroad. She co-authored “Is Our Food Safe? A Consumer’s Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment,” has served on several World Health Organization food safety committees, and is the representative for the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations on the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene. 

Smith DeWaal is also an invaluable resource to Congressional staff working on food safety issues both behind the scenes and as a frequent expert witness in Congressional hearings.

Food Safety News had a chance to catch up with Smith DeWaal about this year in food safety and where Congress stands on the pending food safety legislation. 

Q: What’s the most important thing that’s happened in food safety this year?

A: The most important thing that’s happened this year is the FDA reform legislation that has passed the House and is moving forward in the Senate — in fact, we’ve seen more movement on comprehensive food safety legislation in the last 12 months than we’ve seen in the preceding 25 years. The last major bill that was adopted was the Food Quality Protection Act, which regulated pesticides. There has been no major legislation regulating microbial food safety in literally decades.

I think Congress has really gotten an education from the repeated outbreaks and recalls, and these have caused constituents to raise food safety questions to their representatives. By the end of the Bush administration, the public perception that the food safety system wasn’t working was palpable. 

Consumer confidence both in the safety of the food supply and in the effectiveness of FDA has been battered in recent years. This ongoing crisis in consumer confidence was something that really got the attention of consumer groups like CSPI and also of the [food] industry.

Q: Do you think in the last throes of the Bush administration they started to turn around on food regulatory issues, after focusing on deregulation? 

A: Yes, I definitely sense that there was a need for change ….The fact that President Obama was willing to come in and discuss food safety very early in his administration–it’s not unlike what happened with President Clinton with the Jack in the Box outbreak–the fact that we had a major outbreak occurring just as Obama was taking office certainly provides a new president with an education. 

There are so many responsibilities in holding that office that food safety doesn’t often reach the Oval Office. But when it happens early in the Administration, as it did both with President Clinton and now with President Obama, it’s likely to be an issue that resonates throughout the administration.

Q: What is the status of the bill in the Senate–obviously they’re waiting for a window to bring it to the floor, but do you have idea when that will be?

A: It won’t be until next year. There is so much on their plate with health care. I think once health care is done there will be an opening. I think it will be tee’d up early in the next session. We should see movement early next year.

Q: Is CSPI still working to change the bill?

A: We are hoping to see the inspection frequencies better articulated, the import sections improved and also an increased mandate for testing in the legislation. It’s not clear right now that we’ll see any of those changes in the final Senate bill. But there is still an opportunity for change because the House bill has some stronger provisions that they will have to merge.

Q: Do you have any idea if stronger provisions might survive a conference committee?

A: It’s too early to know that.

Q: What level of engagement has CSPI and the Make Our Food Safe Coalition had with the organic and sustainable agriculture community?

A: The consumer groups have met extensively with representatives with the organic community. 

I think that there’s been a lot of progress in the understanding within the small agricultural and the organic communities that the bill is not intended to impact them adversely, but also that everybody is responsible for food safety. You shouldn’t be in food production unless you’re willing to follow certain basic protocols, such as having a written food safety plan or following government Good Agricultural Practices [GAP].

See tomorrow’s edition of Food Safety News for more of our conversation with Caroline Smith DeWaal–we’ll be covering the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) and the international expansion of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Photo credit: Caroline Smith DeWaal addresses the Global Food Safety Policy Forum on the hill, courtesy of Water Corporation.