By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
The National Consumers League was pleased to join fellow consumer advocates along with government and food industry representatives at last week’s 32nd annual National Food Policy Conference. The conference, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, focused on two key issues of national concern: food safety and child nutrition. On food safety, the conference proved particularly timely.
Lately, unease about the safety of the food supply in the United States has grown, fueled by outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to contaminated peanut butter and cookie dough. A Pew-commissioned bipartisan poll of Iowa voters released during the conference found that approximately half of those polled stated that events of the past year have decreased their confidence in the safety of food sold in this country. A Pew-commissioned nationwide poll released at the same time found that concern about the safety of imported foods has increased since 2008; 64 percent of Americans surveyed believe imported foods to be “often or sometimes unsafe,” whereas only 53 percent of likely voters expressed these concerns in 2008. The poll also found that 89 percent of participants want stronger food safety measures and 91 percent want more frequent inspections of high-risk food processing facilities.
Modernized food safety laws are long overdue. Many food safety regulations have not been updated since 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, legislation that the National Consumers League played a key role in passing. In July, the House passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act, H.R. 2749, which would increase the regulatory powers of the FDA, require imported food to meet the same safety standards as food produced in the United States, establish a national food tracing system, and require all food processing facilities to implement food safety plans. Food safety advocates hope that the Senate version of the bill, which does not include all provisions in the House bill, will come up for consideration this session.
During her keynote speech, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg detailed the FDA’s plans to strengthen its own programs and policies, measures which include appointing a Deputy Commissioner for Foods. Hamburg also noted a fundamental change in perspective at the FDA: “We are pressing forward with a new agenda: to shift the agency’s emphasis away from mitigating public health harm by removing unsafe products from the market place, to…prevent[ing] harm by keeping unsafe food from entering commerce in the first place.” The Commissioner announced the Reportable Food Registry, a new initiative requiring food industry officials to electronically report cases of probable food contamination within 24 hours of discovery.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius echoed Commissioner Hamburg’s commitment to cross-agency collaboration and noted that new preventive measures will not only save lives but will generate significant cost savings as well. Secretary Sebelius used her speech before an audience of many consumer advocates to announce the launch of www.foodsafety.gov , a joint initiative of the USDA and HHS that will provide consumers with a one-stop source for information about the latest recalls and outbreaks.
The National Consumers League applauds the collaborative approach embraced by the Obama administration and strongly supports much needed food safety reform.