Trade Groups Cheer White House Plan to Tighten Food Safety Standards

The Obama Administration yesterday took the first step toward overhauling and modernizing the country’s food safety system, including stricter rules for the production of eggs, poultry, beef, leafy greens, melons and tomatoes.

The new proposals, recommended by the Food Safety Working Group created by President Obama in March, emphasize prevention, enforcement and improving the government’s response time to food safety outbreaks with a central goal of reducing cases of salmonella and E. coli contamination. The Food and Drug Administration will also be charged with helping the food industry establish better tracing systems in the event of an outbreak, to quickly pinpoint the origins of an outbreak.

“There are few responsibilities more basic or more important for the government than making sure the food our families eat is safe,: said Vice President Joseph Biden during a White House news conference on Tuesday, where he was joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “American families have enough to worry about today. They should not have [food safety] as a concern.”

Noting that “[t]here isn’t a single American that isn’t impacted by our efforts to protect the food supply,” Secretary Vilsack said, “We owe it to the American people to … greatly enhance our food safety system, moving our approach into the 21st century, employing the best surveillance techniques available and ensuring that we are doing all we can to prevent illness before it occurs.”

Among the working group’s specific steps designed to advance its core principles:

--HHS and USDA will target salmonella contamination by developing tougher standards to protect the safety of eggs, poultry, and turkey

--To fight the threat of E. coli, USDA will step up enforcement in beef facilities, while the FDA will develop new industry guidance improving protections for leafy greens, melons and tomatoes

--Building a new national traceback and response system including clearer industry guidance, a new unified incident command system, and improved use of technology to deliver individual food safety alerts to consumers

The administration also revealed plans to strengthen the organization of federal food safety functions, including the creation of new positions at key food safety agencies and a continuing oversight role for the Food Safety Working Group.

Various industry trade groups applauded the news, including the Food Marketing Institute, which said it “fully support[s] the extensive effort by the White House Food Safety Working Group to launch new and improved safety standards to protect Americans from foodborne illness. We are pleased that the White House will focus on prevention, rapid response, and increased and improved communications, as this is what will be the essential factors for ensuring food safety.”

The United Fresh Produce Association was also gratified to see key produce industry objectives incorporated in the new food safety recommendations. Noting that the changes in policy “demonstrate how the government and the food industry can work together to make meaningful and practical food safety improvements,” Tom Stenzel, United Fresh’s president and CEO, said the new plan “embraces several key recommendations advanced by United Fresh to help ensure that food safety initiatives address produce industry priorities” and set a strong foundation for the food safety legislative work on Capitol Hill.

GMA President and CEO Pamela Bailey concurred. “Food safety and consumer confidence is the No. 1 priority for the food and beverage industry -- we are responsible for providing our consumers with the safest manufactured goods possible, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

All three groups pledged continued support to working with the Obama administration and Congress to enact reforms that will improve food safety, boost consumer confidence and address the challenges posed by the food supply.
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