While food and agriculture policy often take a back seat during presidential elections, the United Fresh Produce Association got both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the record regarding some key food issues this week. The association on Thursday released both campaigns’ responses to its policy questionnaire, which focused on immigration, taxes, environmental regulations and food safety. The responses do not go into detail, but the language used by the campaigns provides some insight into how each approaches food safety as a policy issue. The Obama Administration has paid more attention to food safety than many preceding administrations by creating a Food Safety Working Group, elevating food issues at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and signing the Food Safety Modernization Act — the most significant update to the food regulatory system in more than 70 years. The law, which has yet to be fully implemented, attempts to shift the food safety system from being reactive to preventive by requiring food facilities to have food safety plans, putting produce safety standards in place and improving foodborne illness surveillance, among other things. Much less is known about the approach a Romney Administration would take — would a President Romney stay this course, or seek to reduce the government’s role in food safety? On food safety, United Fresh asked: With greater regulatory oversight, and greater investment by the industry into food safety for fresh produce, how can your administration ensure that food safety events (detections, outbreaks, recalls) are conducted in a way that protects public health without imposing crippling costs and liabilities on produce industry companies? Do you believe that food safety programs that are mandated by federal regulations are of benefit to the general public, and therefore should be funded largely by the federal government? Obama’s response: When I took office, our food safety system needed to be updated – 1 in 4 people were getting sick every year due to food-borne illness, and children and the elderly were more at risk. Each year, foodborne illness affected 48 million Americans, hospitalizing a hundred thousand and killing thousands. Within my first 100 days in office, I established a Food Safety Working Group to help look at how we can improve America’s food safety system. I also passed the most comprehensive reform of our nation’s food safety laws in decades – giving FDA the resources, authority and tools they need to make real improvements to our food safety system. We are looking for creative ways to coordinate with the food industry and take advantage of modern technology to achieve our food safety goals, including being able to rapidly and effectively trace contaminated foods. We are making it easier for farms of all sizes to reduce their own food safety risks by developing an online tool, which I encourage you to try. It is available at www.onfarmfoodsafety.org. Effectively managing risk is important to all producers, and having an acceptable food safety program is in the best interest of consumers, buyers, and the farmers themselves. And I am committed to working to ensuring that food safety regulations do not place an unreasonable burden on the food industry. Romney’s response: Thankfully, American farmers and producers, specifically the produce industry, have a long history of taking responsibility for food safety. Preventive practices are the best tool to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses, provide more control over the potential risks of contamination, and are generally the most cost effective. Governor Romney believes preventative practices are best developed by growers, handlers, processors, and others in the supply chain with specific knowledge of the risks, diversity of operations in the industry, and feasibility of potential mitigation strategies. Governor Romney believes the FDA must collaborate with industry, in cooperation with state agencies and academia, to develop specific guidance for the commodities most often associated with food-borne illness outbreaks. A Romney Administration will prioritize this type of cooperation and collaboration with industry on the part of all agencies charged with protecting public health. Food safety aside, these campaigns had wildly different responses to United Fresh’s question on whether or not their administration would build upon the current efforts to boost fruit and vegetable consumption or support a change in “nutrition strategy” for the country. Romney’s three-sentence response, which can be read here, starts by noting that the federal government “should not dictate what every American eats,” but adds that the growing obesity epidemic and its “related health challenges” represent a public health crisis. “An emphasis on a balanced diet will be crucial to addressing this crisis and public health programs in a Romney Administration will highlight the importance of healthy eating,” the response added. Obama’s three-paragraph response details the various efforts his administration has made in the area of nutrition — which is not surprising considering that Mrs. Obama has focused on tackling childhood obesity as part of her platform as First Lady. “I am proud of Michelle’s ‘Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools’ initiative, the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable (Snack) program for schools, the USDA’s My Plate campaign, and other programs that are improving the nutrition of our nation,” reads the response, which can be read here. “But there is still more that can be done,” the response continues. “In partnership with the private sector, we need to continue encouraging schools to promote healthy eating and ensuring students are offered food and vegetables every day of the week, educating Americans about the benefits of fruits and vegetables, supporting regional food hubs and the establishment of grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods, and researching effective ways to promote healthier food choices.”