Every once in a while in the news business, a feeling comes through our once ink-filled veins. It does not reach everyone at the same time or place, but eventually we all say it: “I think we’ve turned a page.”
That’s what I began feeling during the past week or so. Part of it is certainly due to the transition in government, but it’s more than that.
We are never surprised when FDA turns to a federal judge to obtain an order for U.S. Marshals to seize adulterated products. But it raised our eyebrows up off our forehead when we read that the target this time was a Top 20 dairy cooperative. Then we learned the action began when Food and Drug Administration found the company’s records of positive tests for pathogens in its plant and products.
Were those records available to FDA inspectors because of the Food Safety Modernization Act and are we going to see more enforcement actions, even against major food industry players, because such records must be kept and shared during inspections?
Another eye opener was the short report from the GAO saying it’s not possible to get a quick compliance answer out of FDA on the FSMA’s new produce rule. This probably should be put into the perspective that a lot of these questions have to do with water.
Imagine you’ve started a water project and need an answer.
FDA should be credited with setting up a system for answering questions, keeping track of them and even admitting it can’t or won’t answer one out of four, but it’s a little more urgent for the grower who has people and equipment backed up in a water project waiting for an answer. FDA either gets better at being a problem solver or the produce rule will be at risk.
The FDA did a 180 this past week on menu labeling, showing the agency can move nimbly when it wants.
This showdown lasted only a few hours before FDA Commissioner Robert Califf sided with congressional Republicans in making the enforcement date for putting calorie counts on restaurant menus next May, not last week.
Since menu labeling is part of the Affordable Care Act, there is plenty of time for it to go away before enforcement begins in May.
However, since it applies only to the big restaurant chains with 200 or more units, they might be far enough down the compliance road that they’d sooner gain the transparency points than tube the whole idea.
Besides, the restaurant industry has plenty of other fish to fry with taxes and other fiscal issues, possibly of more concern to those in Congress than calorie counts.
Then there’s the transition. We are going stay focused on the 15 federal agencies that are responsible for enforcing about 30 federal food safety laws.
Rep. Tom Price, R-GA, might not have been our pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, but just because he voted against the FSMA and the Healthy Kids Nutrition Act does not mean the people under him will administer the law any differently. At least, let’s all hope so.
Both FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be under Price’s control. FDA is charged with the safety of about 80 percent of what we eat and drink. The rules that make its new FSMA regulatory structure tick are going live. Who’s going to be in charge is going to be more important than it normally would be.
But it’s less important who the Secretary of HHS or even who the Secretary of Agriculture is than who runs agencies like FDA and CDC along with the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety when it comes to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). They need to have the credentials and abilities that inspire confidence.
The outgoing administration has left the incoming one an opportunity to make a real statement for food safety right from the get-go. That could be accomplished by immediately naming an Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety.
Yes, this position has been vacant for about three years and federal law requires the President to name someone to the job, subject to the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. We could speculate on why it might be vacant. Some say there are powerful interests out there who don’t want it to be filled, and they are not all in the meat industry. Some say having a Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Food Safety just drains off too much power from the Secretary of Agriculture. Other theories abound.
But, President-elect Trump must name an Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety because it is the law and it is the right thing do. This position sits on top of the FSIS organizational chart and its 10,000 professionals who inspect meat, poultry, eggs and catfish at a cost to taxpayers of $1 billion a year.
This is one of a handful of the nation’s top food safety positions. Go ahead and ask the public if they want it filled, I know what they will say.
Yes, for a time we’ve had a good man acting and more recently two good men as Deputy Undersecretaries. But the position has remained vacant and out of compliance with federal law that says the President, with Senate confirmation, shall appoint an Under Secretary for Food Safety.
Or let me put it this way. A newly appointed Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety would make American great again.
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