Since the Obama administration took over the executive branch more than six years ago, foodborne illnesses from meat, poultry and eggs — products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has been falling. In fact, just from fiscal year 2013 to 2014, illnesses from meat and poultry has fallen by 10 percent, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was appointed to head USDA when the president took office in 2009. That’s not a coincidence, he said — it’s the result of six years of progress at USDA. whitehouseinauguration-406Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, made a case for his six-year tenure as the head of USDA during a keynote address in Washington, D.C., this week at the 2015 National Food Policy Conference. Later in the conference, a panel of food safety and food policy experts took to the stage to discuss the administration’s record on food safety six years into Obama’s presidency. The Agriculture Secretary attributed that 10-percent decline in foodborne illnesses to a few key measures. First, reductions in E. coli cases can be linked to increased testing of ground beef and bench trim, including the classification of adulterant being extended to six more strains of shiga toxin producing E. coli besides O157:H7. Other important measures during the past six years include the first-ever performance standards established for chicken. And now, the agency is focused on finalizing performance standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter on chicken parts and ground chicken and turkey. Ultimately, Vilsack said that he and his government colleagues couldn’t take full credit since the administration was first urged to act on these measures by the public — in particular, the public advocates in attendance at this week’s National Food Policy Conference. “It’s all the result of the advocacy of folks like you to ensure we continue looking for ways to improve the quality and safety of the foods Americans consume,” he said. Other issues have not been as easy to push through. Take country-of-origin labeling (COOL) laws on meat, for example.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
If USDA loses its latest appeal to the World Trade Organization over COOL, there’s nothing it can do from a regulatory perspective, “so something will need to happen on the statutory side,” Vilsack said. For now, agency officials are waiting for the appeal to conclude, and then they’ll wait on directions from Congress. It’s impossible to talk about the administration’s record on food safety without bringing up the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the single largest piece of food safety legislation to be passed in more than 70 years. While it was signed into law by President Obama in 2011, the need for such a law was being felt many years earlier. Obama likely felt the urgency for such a law during his inauguration, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), speaking during a subsequent panel at the food policy conference. Right as Obama came into office in January 2009, the nation was in the midst of a massive Salmonella outbreak from peanut butter, an episode that also launched the largest food recall in U.S. history. The president was famously quoted as saying that his daughter, Sasha, ate peanut butter sandwiches “probably three times a week.” “No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch,” Obama said at the time. The situation closely mirrors the experience of President Clinton, who came into office in January 1993 at the height of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, a watershed moment in the history of food safety regulation. That outbreak soon paved the way for Clinton’s USDA to declare E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in ground beef, a move that sparked huge changes throughout the beef industry. “Clinton saw food safety as a real legacy issue,” DeWaal said. She was quick to point out that FSMA only covers non-meat food items regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Despite what Vilsack’s USDA has accomplished, there’s still much more progress to be made, she said. “For meat and poultry, we’re still dealing with a regulatory system that was designed in 1906,” DeWaal said. The most important thing accomplished during this administration, she said, was the updated pathogen standards on meat and poultry, as well as the adulteration classification of additional E. coli strains, both mentioned earlier by Vilsack. Much of the remaining conversation centered on the administration’s food policy accomplishments outside of the food safety realm, including dietary guidelines and First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to reduce obesity and improve nutrition through her Let’s Move! campaign. Finally, panel moderator Helena Bottemiller Evich, food reporter for POLITICO (and formerly of Food Safety News) asked what food-related issues panelists felt the administration would not be able to accomplish in its final 638 days in office. One clear answer was that revisions to regulations for Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) ingredients are inevitably on their way, but they aren’t likely to be worked out before the end of the president’s current four-year term on Jan. 20, 2017. The clearest answer, though, was the eventual creation of a single federal food safety agency. “Despite the fact that the president’s budget this year actually talked about restructuring the food safety agencies, and we actually have legislation for a single food safety agency in Congress, I do not believe the consensus exists yet to do real restructuring of our food agencies,” DeWaal said. Overall, however, the panelists generally seemed to agree that the first 75 percent of the administration’s time in office has been great for food. As Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants put it: “I think we’re going to look back years from now and say, ‘Wow, that was a pretty productive administration in terms of food policy.'”