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Letter to Obama regarding the Food Safety Working Group

May 15, 2009
President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
We applaud you for the creation of the Food Safety Working Group and greatly appreciate the opportunity for Consumers Union to participate in the Working Group’s Listening Session held May 13, 2009. As you have noted, unsafe food affects all Americans at the most basic level. The expertise and leadership of your Working Group presents the opportunity for comprehensive and lasting improvements to our food safety system. By this letter, Consumers Union presents some specific recommendations for consideration by the Working Group.
The importance of improving food safety cannot be overestimated. Approximately one in four Americans become sick, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and 5,000 people die each year from foodborne illnesses. These numbers take a toll on the efficiency of our workforce, add to healthcare costs, and create tragedy for the families of victims, who are disproportionately very young children.
In late April 2009, Consumers Union, in cooperation with The Pew Charitable Trusts, Safe Tables Our Priority, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Food and Water Watch, and the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, held a forum in Washington for 24 victims and their families who told compelling and tragic stories about serious illnesses and deaths involving food they ate. These problems should be largely avoidable, and a country as well developed as the United States can and must do better.
A. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should require food processors and
produce farms to have science-based food safety plans in place. These food plans
should be designed to prevent both biological and chemical contamination. FDA should develop regulations that define the elements of appropriate plans for each commodity and type of facility and enforce compliance. Farm food safety standards should take account of the differing processes and capacities of large commercial producers and small sustainable and organic producers.
B. Congress should authorize FDA to establish annual registration fees. Revenues generated from these fees should at least partially offset the cost of policy making, inspections, laboratory services and related research.
C. FDA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) should set science-based standards for pathogen contamination of all food, including fresh produce, meat, and poultry. The standards should include a USDA standard for campylobacter in poultry, as this widely-present pathogen is currently unregulated.
D. FDA should require testing and sampling by food processors for potential contaminants, and firms should be required to report the results of any tests that show contamination to the agency. Such mandated testing and reporting, in tandem, could help prevent future widespread foodborne illness outbreaks because FDA would be able to identify problem patterns early.
E. FDA, which regulates animal feed, should prohibit all feeding of animal remains to food animals, especially ruminants, to prevent mad cow disease.
F. FDA should develop robust, science-based protocols for assessing the risks of nanotechnology and other new technologies being used to produce food, and appropriately regulate these technologies.
G. USDA, FDA, EPA and other involved agencies should develop a new plan for assuring the safety of genetically engineered crops in the food supply. Companies, including foreign suppliers, should be required to notify and to obtain safety approval from the FDA before a genetically engineered food is introduced into the U.S. food supply.
H. Trade agreements can pose obstacles to taking preventative action to ensure the safety of food imports. For example, Congress has specifically banned the import of cooked Chinese poultry out of concerns about contamination caused by China’s poor record of food safety enforcement. However, concerns have been raised that this ban may violate World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements. We therefore recommend that the Working Group examine how trade agreements can be revised to allow the U.S. government to take actions to protect Americans while not disrupting international relations.
I. Consumers should also be given the tools to make fair and informed choices about new food technologies. Cloned animals, genetically engineered animal and plant foods, and foods containing nanotech ingredients should be required to be labeled, and standards for the organic and grass-fed label should be robust.
Inspection and Enforcement
A. One of the most important bulwarks against foodborne illness outbreaks is routine FDA inspection of food production facilities. FDA must increase its inspection of food processing facilities so that it inspects every facility at least once a year (it currently averages once every ten years). By way of contrast, USDA currently inspects every slaughter facility every single day. FDA should use a risk-based system to prioritize inspections, with highest priority given to foods and industries that have caused disease outbreaks or otherwise pose significant public health risks.
B. Congress should give FDA the authority to levy meaningful fines and penalties on food manufacturers who sell unsafe food.
C. FDA must increase its inspection of imported food for compliance with U.S. standards from the current level of less than one percent. All imported food should be required to have third party certification, from an FDA-approved certifier, that it meets U.S. safety standards, as an initial level of review.
Surveillance & Testing
A. Surveillance should include surveillance of animal health, human health, and testing of food for contamination. The infrastructure for proper surveillance in many areas is lacking or inconsistent from state to state in many areas. These gaps should be addressed.
B. Congress should require food to be traceable from farm to consumer by electronic means.
C. State agencies that investigate foodborne disease outbreaks and report them to CDC should be strengthened and made consistent in capacity. The model established by the Minnesota State Health Department, which successfully broke both the recent pepper outbreak case and the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) case, should be disseminated to other states. Nationwide reporting of illness outbreaks by states to the CDC should be facilitated and funded by the federal government.
D. The USDA should end its prohibition on slaughterhouses and other private parties testing cattle for mad cow disease. This will not only increase the surveillance for this disease, it will resolve a long-standing trade dispute with Japan and Korea, and could result in a value added “mad cow-tested” product being offered to consumers.
E. USDA and FDA testing of products for pesticide and chemical contamination should be maintained and expanded. For example, recently FDA found the industrial substance melamine (or melamine derivatives) in 5 samples of baby formula produced in the United States, out of 89 samples tested. We recommend that FDA test more samples of foods such as infant formula for contamination on an ongoing basis.
Rapid Response
A. FDA and USDA should have the mandatory authority to recall unsafe food. All food recalls are currently voluntary, and the federal government must negotiate a recall with a company.
B. FDA should revise its rules, as USDA has done, to disclose the names and locations of retail consignees during a food recall, thereby allowing consumers to know if their local supermarket is carrying an item involved in a multi-state recall.
Restructuring the Federal Food Safety System
A. To get the most bang for the federal dollar, we urge a comprehensive restructuring the federal food safety system. As a first step, we recommend restructuring FDA to combine food safety functions, and separate them from the drug and cosmetic safety functions. We believe this will lead to much more efficient and effective use of resources. This could be accomplished by creating a separate agency for food safety within HHS.
B. Longer term, we believe that a single free-standing food safety agency, outside of both USDA and HHS, is needed to target resources effectively and to best achieve our common goals. Such a single agency would combine the food safety functions of the more than one dozen federal agencies currently responsible for some aspect of our food safety.
Consumers Union greatly appreciates the opportunity to provide you with our ideas and suggestions for improving food safety. We commend you for making it a national priority. We long forward to continuing to work with you and your Administration on this critical issue.
Jean Halloran
Director, Food Policy Initiatives
Consumers Union
101 Truman Avenue
Yonkers, NY 10703
Ami V. Gadhia
Policy Counsel
Consumers Union
1101 17th Street NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20036