White House claims progress in food safety efforts

Dec 21, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Federal officials today released a progress report on the work of President Barack Obama's Food Safety Working Group, which has been buoyed by legislation passed earlier this year but faces challenges in implementing the law.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement unveiling the report, commenting that the holidays are a good time to reiterate the government's commitment to protecting the nation's food supply.

Obama appointed the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) in March 2009 following several high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks that involved products such as peanuts, hot peppers, and ground beef. That summer, the group outlined key steps, including a new egg safety rule to prevent Salmonella infections, measures to reduce pathogenic Escherichia coli contamination in ground beef and produce, and plans to improve trace-back investigations and coordination among federal agencies involved in food safety.

Today's report, released by the White House, said the FSWG's 2-year mark is a good time to assess its efforts and set an agenda for the next 2 years and beyond, including activities needed to implement the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law on Jan 4.

For example, under the new egg safety rule the FDA will have inspected 600 of the largest egg producers by the end of this year, the group wrote. The rule is expected to reduce the number of shell egg–related illnesses by about 60%, preventing about 79,000 illnesses each year, according to the report.

To ensure the safety of liquid eggs, the USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service started a risk assessment and a baseline study on liquid egg products in the fall. The report also notes that the FSIS (in 2010) also implemented its first performance standards for reducing Campylobacter in poultry establishments and expanded a Salmonella reduction program for meat and poultry to include incentives to encourage producers to try new procedures to better control the pathogen.

Measures to help control E coli O157:H7 included a new verification testing program for key ground beef components, instructions for inspectors who test for the pathogen, and a list of actions the FSIS will take if samples test positive. The group noted that 2010 FoodNet data suggested a substantial decrease in reported E coli O157:H7 infections.

In the area of produce safety, the working group highlighted the work of the Produce Safety Alliance, a 3-year public-private partnership to help growers and packers access food safety education materials, which the report cites as a key step to prepare for science-based standards required by the FSMA.

Enhancements of food safety surveillance include the expansion of PulseNet, a national molecular subtyping network for identifying foodborne bacteria, to 50 states and 82 countries, with a similar system for detecting noroviruses now operating in 25 states. The report said FoodCORE, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program to support outbreak investigations, is expanding an d has played roles in helping to quickly contain single- and multi-state outbreaks.

The report describes additional accomplishments in the areas of prevention, response, imported foods, antibiotic resistance, and coordination among federal agencies.

The White House called the working group's accomplishments so far "a large down payment on a stronger food safety system."

Accomplishments over the next 2 years and beyond will likely hinge on the continued implementation of the FSMA, according to the report. Some of the priority areas will include preharvest food safety, preventive control standards, retail food safety, modernized food safety inspections, and import safety.

Other important next steps will be improvements in food tracing and rules to identify foodborne illness outbreaks linked to ground beef from retail stores, the report said.

In March, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said the FSWG was a good first step to boost food safety collaboration among federal agencies, but it lacked results-oriented goals and performance benchmarks.

Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food safety watchdog group, said in a statement today that the progress report shows that the Obama administration focuses a high level of attention on food safety and the need for federal and state agencies to improve their coordination during outbreaks.

She said lapses can occur without strong leadership and that the continuation of the FSWG is a good sign.

Future progress will hinge on more commitments in key areas, DeWaal, said, such as protecting food safety funding from projected across-the-board cuts, implementing timelines for integrating information technology systems of government agencies, and developing a unified system for addressing emerging pathogens in the food supply, such as antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strains.

See also:

Dec 21 HHS press release

Dec 21 Food Safety Working Group progress report

Dec 21 CSPI press release

Mar 21 CIDRAP News story "GAO calls for better federal food safety coordination"

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