Administration moves to bolster food safety net

The Obama administration took a step toward modernizing the nation’s faltering system for protecting the food supply on Tuesday, announcing new regulations to curb the spread of salmonella in eggs and naming a new food watchdog at the Food and Drug Administration.

The changes follow President Obama’s pledge to modernize a chronically underfunded and understaffed safety system that has repeatedly failed to control outbreaks of food-borne illness.

fried-chickenWhat will egg producers be required to do?

Nearly all egg producers with more than 3,000 laying hens — which account for the vast majority of eggs consumed by Americans — will be required to buy chicks from suppliers who monitor for salmonella bacteria.

In addition, producers will be required to test their poultry houses regularly, control pests and rodents, and take steps to guard against bioterrorism threats.

They will have to refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees Fahrenheit no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid.

What will be the effect?

The FDA estimates that the additional safety measures will cost the egg industry about $81 million a year but provide $1.4 billion in public health benefits, driven in large part by a projected 60% drop in the number of illnesses caused by contaminated eggs.

That translates into 79,000 fewer illnesses annually, according to the agency.

Are there other food safety steps that the administration is planning?

The Department of Agriculture, which has responsibility for regulating most meat production, is to develop new standards by the end of the year to reduce salmonella in turkey and poultry.

The agency is stepping up its beef inspections to reduce the danger of E. coli, particularly in ground beef, as well.

The FDA also plans to issue draft guidelines for producers to reduce the risk of contamination to tomatoes, melons and leafy greens, along with developing a new tracing system to make it easier to determine the source of a food outbreak.

Michael R. Taylor, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services who has done extensive work on food safety issues, will become a senior advisor to the agency commissioner, giving the food safety unit a more prominent voice and greater access to senior agency officials.

The administration plans to create a new “unified incident command system” to coordinate a government response to future outbreaks of food-borne illness.


Why is this all happening now?

With recent food scares involving cookie dough, pistachios, peanut butter and peppers, there is growing consensus in Washington that major changes are needed in the way the federal government regulates foods.

Particularly alarming to many policymakers and industry leaders, the recent outbreaks revealed weaknesses in the government’s ability to identify the source of contamination and control it.

That has helped build bipartisan support for legislation to give new regulatory powers to the FDA, which oversees most food products but has little actual authority to mandate changes in the marketplace.

Bills sponsored by, among others, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) are pending in both chambers and may get votes later this summer.

President Obama in March created a Food Safety Working Group that he promised would pave the way for broad food safety reforms.

The working group Tuesday announced the new egg rule and other steps by the FDA and USDA.

“Our goal is to overhaul the system so that we can get better at both stopping food-safety problems before they happen, and, almost equally as important, moving quickly — much more quickly — to deal with them when they do,” Vice President Joe Biden said in announcing the steps while Obama was abroad Tuesday. “They’re just the first steps of many.”

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