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.”

  • An interesting difference in the responses: Obama’s answer is first person; Romney’s is third person. Not surprising, really. Romney will always see himself as separate from the American people. He won’t answer directly–he’ll assign some staffer for any interaction with the American public.
    What I get from the Romney campaign response is he’s basically abrogating food safety issues to the producers, while he downsizes or eliminates any government involvement.
    Oh, yeah. That will work really well. These pages have born witness to how well this has gone in the past.
    We can kiss the EPA’s enforcement of the CWA good-bye. Hello contaminated water and fish kills. I wonder how many unregulated CAFOs will be allowed to sprout?
    I guess if Romney wins, I can always restrict my food purchases to foreign grown. Too bad I can’t get my water and air elsewhere, too.

  • DJ

    It doesn’t sound like Romney considers safe food for the American people a priority, and will let the food industry call the shots. More people will be at risk of food poisoning, but there will probably be less recalls. His attitude about regulations that keep us safer, is something we need to be very concerned about. Industries have a poor track record when they are allowed to police themselves, and that puts us at a much higher risk of illnesses and diseases.

  • DN

    Although the response from the Obama camp does state all the right things, why hasn’t his solutions worked? Clearly there is an approach that would work better.
    I can tell you first hand as someone who has had their life greatly impacted during the last 2 years, due to a food borne illness that almost killing my daughter and leaving her severely disabled costing my family hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical and therapy expenses. To suggest Obama’s policies have worked or will work, is misleading.
    If the gov’t taxes corporations higher, they have to cut costs elsewhere, i.e. food safety.
    Romney’s camp states that he wants to encourage the private sector to solve this problem, knowing that the government is the problem. Cut their taxes, empower them to solve it themselves.
    Of course, some corporations will and some won’t. When it comes to food safety, a lot of these companies cut corners, and therefore trust their insurance policies will cover any shortcomings causes by an outbreak.
    The answer probably lies some where in between (and outside of) both of these two candidates’.

  • With the massive cuts in funding to the USDA, FSIS and FDA that have already happened and the ones that will automatically cut in later if Congress doesn’t get it together and actually implement an intelligent cost cutting policy based on the value of the programs involved rather than an across-the-board automatic slashing of all regardless of usefulness, our food safety will be put in grave jeopardy no matter who is elected.
    President Obama’s upgrade of food safety procedures has not been implemented because of the USDA’s present lack of sufficient funds. If their budget is reduced again because of Republican intransigence – and let’s not play games about what has been going on, especially in the House – our Federal food safety programs will virtually cease to exist.
    I don’t advocate the Feds keeping their foot on producers’ necks, but I don’t advocate giving the foxes almost complete control of the hen house either.