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Back to the Future: Obama Recycling Clinton-Era Food Safety Initiatives as New

 At 10:30 AM today, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, HHS Secretary Sebelius, and Vice-President Biden will issue “key finding,” according to an email from Nick Shapiro, Office of the Press Secretary, in The White House, that was sent to several media outlets. According to press release, entitled President’s Food Safety Working Group: Delivering Results, the Obama administration is going to implement “a new public health-focused approach to food safety based on three core principles: (1) prioritizing prevention; (2) strengthening surveillance and enforcement; and (3) improving response and recovery.” Although these principles are laudable, and anything would be an improvement over the Bush administration’s efforts to put industry profits above the public health, most of what is being announced today is recycled from Clinton years, and all are incremental steps that seek improvements around the edges rather than the much needed structural change to the U.S. food safety system.

What follows is a point-by-point commentary and critique of today’s announced policy changes and renewed initiatives. As I think you will see, there is not a lot radical going on here. (Please click on the Continue Reading link to read more.)

Preventing Salmonella Contamination: Here the press release notes that,” Despite support from consumer advocates and the egg industry, the Federal government has been unable to finalize basic rules on egg safety to prevent contamination.” And this is true, but eggs stopped being the biggest cause of Salmonella infection quite some time ago. In 2007, for Salmonella infections attributed to a food source, the outbreaks were caused by contaminated peanut butter, frozen pot pies, and puffed snack food. Moreover, hard data does not exist with regard to the prevalence of Salmonella in eggs in the United States, making the estimates about potential savings and illness-reduction speculative at best. As the USDA Agricultural Research Service pointed out in a report issued in 2007:

Market egg sampling data has never been collected in the United States on a national basis and no regional sampling data has been collected in 10 years. Salmonella outbreaks continue to be attributed to eggs and no progress has been made in several years in decreasing incidence.

The report then concluded: “USDA does not believe that this project is feasible given current budgets, limited extramural funding sources, and the existence of more pressing food safety issues such as attribution of illness to produce.” Full report here: www.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/publications.htm

The press release also touts an effort of the USDA to, by the end of the year, “develop new standards to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella in turkeys and poultry.” But here, again, the approach is incremental (if not merely symbolic), and fails to consider a better alternative: namely, the ELIMINATION of Salmonella (and Campylobacter) from eggs and poultry, something that was years ago achieved in other countries, like Denmark.

Reducing the Threat of E. coli O157:H7: According the press release, there is going to be “stepped up enforcement in beef facilities,” including “ issuing improved instructions to [inspectors]…to find this pathogen, focusing largely on the components that go into making ground beef.” There is no lack of irony in this announcement given that it is being made as we are in the midst of the second huge recall in two years of intact cuts of beef linked to large numbers of serious E. coli O157:H7 infection—the current recall being that linked to JBS Swift meat processed in Greeley, Colorado, and the previous one involving Nebraska Beef Ltd.

The release also touts the fact that USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is “increasing its sampling to find this pathogen.” But as a senior FSIS official has already admitted about this increase in E. coli testing, the sampling plan does not even come close to attaining statistically significant results. (I have previously blogged about the largely symbolic nature of this increased testing, and that blog-post can be found here: www.foodpoisonjournal.com/tags/zero-tolerance/

Preventing Contamination of Leafy Greens, Melons, and Tomatoes: And perhaps in what is my favorite bit of tap-dancing and window-dressing, the press release announces that, “[b]y the end of the month, FDA will issue commodity-specific draft guidance on preventive controls that industry can implement to reduce the risk of microbial contamination in the production and distribution of tomatoes, melons, and leafy greens. These proposals will help the Federal government establish a minimum standard for production across the country. Over the next two years, FDA will seek public comment and work to require adoption of these approaches through regulation.” OH, YIPPEE!!! Yet another “draft guidance” from the FDA on produce safety, and a promise that, in two years or so, the agency will “work to require adoption of these approaches.” In other words, no change here. And if you would like to have a look at just how long the FDA has been making“suggestions” on produce safety, have a look at the produce safety initiative announced on May 6, 1998, and the issuance of ‘‘Guidance for Industry: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables,’’ which was the FDA’s first attempt to the same thing it says it is going to this time try to do again. See here: www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/98fr/050698b.pdf And: www.foodsafety.gov/~dms/prodguid.html

One other suggestion of my own: If the FDA wants to get serious about produce safety, then it should read the multiple reports issued by the Food Safety Project at Georgetown University, which can be found here: www.producesafetyproject.org/reports

The press release announces other mostly recycled initiatives, which I will address in a follow-up post. So let me end here by saying that increased food safety efforts are nice, but results are all that matters. And the initiatives announced today may sound good, but they are unlikely to change much.  What is needed is a structural overhaul of the US food safety system.