Food Safety Report Urges Reform

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Food Safety Report Urges Reform

03/25/2009
In the wake of several recent high-profile food recalls – including the salmonella outbreak related to peanut products -- Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) yesterday issued a new report, “Keeping America’s Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,” which looks at the problems in what it calls the “antiquated” current system and identifies ways to improve food safety functions at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

President Barack Obama recently called for restructuring and improving the U.S. food safety system. “Keeping America’s Food Safe” offers a blueprint for beginning to overhaul the system, according to the issuers of the report.

“Our food safety system is plagued with problems, and it’s leading to millions of Americans becoming needlessly sick each year,” noted TFAH executive director Jeff Levi. “The system is outdated and unable to effectively deal with today’s threats. Its current structure actually prevents the kind of coordinated, focused effort that Americans need more than ever and have a right to expect.”

“Food safety needs to be a priority on the prevention menu,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We shouldn’t have to worry about our children getting sick from their school lunch or from a family meal at a restaurant. And we shouldn’t have to wait until people become sick to learn about food safety problems. We need modern, comprehensive ways of preventing and detecting problems before food gets to the table.”

The report urges the immediate consolidation of food safety leadership within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and eventually the formation of a separate Food Safety Administration within HHS, with the effect of strategically aligning and elevating the food safety functions currently handled by FDA, and better coordinating regulation policies and practices with the surveillance and detection of outbreak functions at CDC and with state and local food safety agencies. At the present time, no FDA official whose full-time job is food safety has line authority over all food safety functions. The agency regulates about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.

Among the key problems the report found with the current structure of food safety programs at HHS were poor leadership, prioritization, and coordination; inadequate technologies and inspection practices; insufficient staffing and resources; and inadequate inspection of imports.

“FDA certainly needs a modern food safety law and more resources, but to make good use of these tools, HHS needs a unified and elevated management structure for food safety that can implement a science- and risk-based food safety program dedicated to preventing foodborne illness,” advised Michael R. Taylor, Research Professor of Health Policy at the School of Public Health at The George Washington University, former deputy commissioner for Policy at FDA and former administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Major organizational change requires careful planning, and implementation and should not be rushed, but the time is ripe for building sustainable solutions to the problems in our nation’s food safety system.”

Supported by a grant from RWJF, the report is available on TFAH’s Web site at www.healthyamericans.org.