Last week, former Food Safety News Washington, D.C., correspondent Helena Bottemiller Evich reached a bold conclusion — namely that the Obama administration has missed out on the opportunity to include food safety in any legacy it can claim. Writing now for POLITICO Pro Agriculture, Helena turned out a “must-read” piece entitled, “Why President Obama and Congress turned their backs on food safety.” The legacy gone line: “The White House has routinely put nutrition policy ahead of food safety, sat on key regulations for months and made only halfhearted attempts to fund the law, according to dozens of interviews with current and former government officials, industry leaders and consumer advocates.” She refers, of course, to implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which she depicts now as broken-down food safety reform with no White House leadership or much interest from Congress. While FSMA was adopted with healthy bipartisan majorities, Helena reports there were telling signs that it was not seen as the stuff to build a presidential library around. Obama signed FSMA into law in private and without fanfare. Helena credits the White House with accurately estimating the cost of making the new law work, but points out they’ve never come anywhere near getting the money required. And I had forgotten about the holdup in FSMA rules by the Obama White House during the 2012 election year. The administration is trying to make up for lost ground in this year’s budget, but an attempt to fully fund FSMA implementation in the Senate fell short after Helena’s presumptive report. All that really remains in 2015 of the broad bipartisan coalition of 2010 are a few liberal Democrats who are variously motivated. That’s not the trend you want to see when you are trying to maintain, let alone increase, an issue coalition. Finally, I must say that President Obama and the White House are really a lot like everybody else. All segments of the food industry, and the so-called “food movement” that lives off it, are always ready to deliver a line or two about how important food safety is, but their actions don’t prove it. Whether you agree with him or not, this president is picking his own legacies and he is stepping it up as he nears the end. And when he is off doing prison reform, trade, Cuba, Iran and the others, it is easy to see how food safety could fall between the cracks. Maybe, just maybe, the follow-through required to fully implement FSMA could be provided by the industry and the movement that exists around food if they would just do more than pay lip service to food safety. Except all they do is fight. A special food section of the Wall Street Journal, which was also published last week, ran competing pro-and-con articles on eight or 10 food-related topics, giving all the usually suspects a chance to vent. Food safety is not really among them unless you count public opinion polls on what people “believe.” Probably all would claim to support food safety, but they suck the air out of the room and give every elected official all the space they need to skate on funding issues. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack might have been thinking of that WSJ section when he said, “I am tired of conflict. I am tired of this city and this country being overwhelmed with us-versus-them issues.” So who can blame Obama for doubling down on nutrition and supporting the First Lady’s priorities ever since she began the “Let’s Move” campaign and hanging out at USDA. After today, there are just 550 more days before the Obama administration is history. We’re lucky to know where food safety stands in these final days. If food safety is not part of that legacy, it means those who do care are going to have to talk up FSMA funding with Congress. And stop bickering over the two-bit food issues for a while.
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