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Overhaul of Food Safety Rules in the Works

By Jane Black and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Obama administration took its first step yesterday toward overhauling food safety regulations that have been blamed for a steady stream of food recalls and related illnesses.

The new proposals, recommended by a working group that President Obama created in March, emphasize prevention, enforcement and improving the government's response time to such incidents.

"There are few responsibilities more basic or more important for the government than making sure the food our families eat is safe," Vice President Biden said at a White House news conference, 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."

Fears about food safety have been spurred by outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli illness from products as varied as peanuts, spinach, tomatoes, pistachios, peppers and, most recently, cookie dough.

Fifteen federal agencies oversee food inspections in a complex and sometimes bizarre division of labor: The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for produce, while the Agriculture Department is responsible for meat. Cheese pizzas are inspected by the FDA, while pepperoni pies go to the USDA.

The administration outlined a variety of measures yesterday to prevent the spread of salmonella, a bacterium that causes more than 1 million illnesses each year in the United States.

Among them is a final rule, issued by the FDA, to reduce the contamination in eggs. About 142,000 Americans are infected each year with Salmonella enteritidis from eggs, the result of an infected hen passing along the bacterium. About 30 die.

The FDA will now require that egg producers test regularly for salmonella and buy chicks from suppliers who do the same. Eggs, which must be refrigerated by wholesalers and retail stores, will have to be refrigerated on the farm and during shipment, as well. About half the egg industry is following similar guidelines voluntarily.

The agency said that will help reduce the number of related food-borne illnesses by an estimated 79,000 a year, or about 60 percent. The new requirements will cost producers about $81 million a year, and add about 1 cent to the cost of a dozen eggs, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said. Sebelius said it will save the nation about $1.4 billion a year in medical expenses.

Such a regulatory change has been a long time coming. President Bill Clinton proposed similar action in 1999, but it was never implemented.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also committed to developing new standards by the end of the year to reduce salmonella in poultry. The office will also establish a salmonella verification program, with the hopes that 90 percent of poultry establishments will meet the new standards by the end of 2010.

Both agencies also announced plans to tackle E. coli. FSIS will step up enforcement at meat processing plants and increase sampling that tests for the pathogen, especially in ground beef. By the end of the month, the FDA, which is responsible for fresh produce, will issue guidance on ways to reduce contamination in the production and distribution of tomatoes, melons and leafy greens.

The proposals also included adding staff positions to help agencies coordinate with one another. The FDA will hire a deputy commissioner for foods, and FSIS will hire a new chief medical officer, who will report to USDA's undersecretary for food safety.

On the whole, food safety advocates were pleased with the new initiatives. "We are coming out of a phase, just like in the financial sector, where the government was loath to regulate," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Tougher controls earlier in the food chain will result in fewer recalls and fewer outbreaks."

Bill Marler, a longtime food safety litigator who writes a blog about the issue, said: "Part of the problem with how we currently deal with food-borne illness cases is we wait until people get sick and die, and then we announce an outbreak. It seems that the focus here is a bit on preventing it before we have sick and dead people, as opposed to counting the bodies after salmonella or E. coli is out of the barn."

Still, some advocates cautioned that new programs must be carefully crafted to avoid doing more harm than good. Some proposals, such as the efforts to establish a product tracing system and salmonella prevention guidelines for fresh produce, remain vague.

It brings "to mind the old saying about the devil being in the details," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Food & Water Watch. The government "must take care to avoid one-size-fits-all standards that cater to the largest industrialized producers and processors of food."

Many key changes will be left to Congress, including the controversial issue of giving federal agencies the authority to recall tainted products if a manufacturer refuses. This would make it easier for consumers to find out where recalled food was sold.

Legislators are also considering several bills to tackle issues not included in the working group's recommendations. Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) want to give the FDA the authority to recall tainted food, to "quarantine" suspect food, and to have the ability to impose civil penalties and increased criminal sanctions on safety violators. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has proposed separating the agency's food safety responsibilities by establishing a new Food Safety Administration. In the Senate, Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) hopes to give the agency a larger budget with more inspectors and stronger regulatory tools.

Staff writer David Brown contributed to this report.

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