Update: Late in the day on Monday, January 25, 2010, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Dr. Elisabeth Hagen for the position of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Food Safety. Dr. Hagen currently serves as the USDA’s Chief Medical Officer. For more information, see the official USDA News Release.
By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
While issues such as the recession, the unemployment rate, and the health reform debate ruled the airwaves in 2009, a number of food-related issues nonetheless grabbed the attention of American consumers. From the mass peanut product recall to the news coverage of the White House garden to the rising hunger rates, food issues not only made the news but directly impacted millions of Americans last year. Here, in a four-part series, we present the food issues that we anticipate will affect American consumers the most – in addition to attracting media attention – in the coming year.
As the recent outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to contaminated spinach, peanut butter, and cookie dough underscore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently possess the authority, funding, and capacity to adequately ensure the safety of food consumers purchase, whether it be imported items or those produced in the United States. Making food in the U.S. significantly safer than it is now will require FDA reform legislation, a goal towards which the National Consumers League has been working, along with fellow members of the Make Our Food Safe coalition.
In July, the House overwhelmingly passed H.R. 2749, its version of FDA food safety reform, which would increase the regulatory powers of the FDA, require food from other countries 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. The Senate bill, S. 510, contains many of the key provisions in the House bill, although it lacks the strength of that legislation in several areas, including inspection frequency and oversight of imported foods. Nonetheless, S. 510 would give FDA the authorities it needs to create a food safety system focused on preventing foodborne illness, rather than on simply responding to outbreaks as they occur. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) unanimously approved this bipartisan piece of legislation in November. Now, as soon as possible, the Senate needs to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, in order to make food-safety reform a reality. The Make Our Food Safe Coalition and victims of foodborne illness and their families will continue to call for Congress to enact food safety legislation until it does so.
Once food safety legislation passes, consumers should look to Michael Taylor, the newly named FDA deputy commissioner for foods, to implement the new laws designed to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness. This new position – Taylor is the first to hold it – will help to increase the focus on food in the agency, which also regulates drugs and medical devices.
While the position of FDA deputy commissioner for foods is now filled, numerous other food-related administration positions continue to remain vacant. The top food safety post at USDA, that of Undersecretary for Food Safety, is the most significant of these empty spots, but four other USDA positions – general counsel; chief financial officer; undersecretary for research, education and economics; and administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service – have not yet been filled. Several of the vacancies require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation; the USDA requires individuals in all of these positions in order to best ensure the safety of meat, poultry, and other USDA-regulated food products. Consumers should expect – and demand – that these vacancies be filled in early 2010. Contact the White House and ask President Obama to nominate individuals for the two undersecretary and general counsel positions.