The White House Is Doing Its Part to Improve Food Safety. When Will Congress?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

THE LIST OF FOODS that have made Americans sick is long and bound to get longer. Even cookie dough wasn't safe from contamination. But it was the massive peanut recall this year that spurred President Obama to establish the food safety working group to devise ways to make a relatively safe food supply safer. The proposals released Tuesday are sound within the confines of existing law. But Congress must move on legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration increased authority to step in before and after the food supply is put at risk.

The working group recommendations are aimed at reducing the prevalence of salmonella and E. coli contaminants that afflict more than 1.3 million Americans annually. The FDA soon will issue final rules to reduce the salmonella contamination of eggs. By the end of the month, the agency will release commodity-specific guidance to industry on how to prevent E. coli from spoiling leafy greens, melons and tomatoes. The Food Safety and Inspection Service plans to issue new standards by the end of the year to reduce salmonella in turkey and poultry. It will also release "improved instructions" to its workforce on how to ensure that businesses handling beef are doing so in a manner that reduces the chances of E. coli contamination. The FDA will publish draft guidance to the food industry on how to establish a food-tracing system. And a new "incident command system" will be created across all federal agencies to more quickly address outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. Overseeing all of these efforts will be a new FDA deputy commissioner for foods and a new chief medical officer at the Agriculture Department.

After years of promises and false starts, these measures offer hope that inaction will give way to better prevention, enforcement and government response. But that hope is tempered by the fact that all of these rules and guidances are nonbinding. A comprehensive bill passed last month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee would give them the teeth they need to be effective. It would give the secretary of health and human services the authority to require facilities to have written food safety plans, to recall contaminated products and to establish a system to trace the origins of food from farm to fork. All Congress has to do is enact the bill into law.

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