Food Safety

The current administration and Congress want to reform our nation’s food safety regulatory system. Most of the proposals thus far have focused predominately on reforming the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) oversight of produce, with little to no attention on changing the USDA’s oversight of meat, poultry and eggs.

Americans need to have the confidence that their food is safe and that the best available science is being utilized to ensure it is also the most wholesome product. Our farmers and ranchers produce the safest, most wholesome and affordable food in the United States and the world. It is our desire as with our consumers, to have a safe, abundant and affordable food supply. We also understand the importance of food safety as it directly relates to consumer confidence and ultimately demand and product value.

At this point in time there are 15 federal agencies administering 30+ laws related to food safety, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The FDA and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) within the USDA, oversee most of the food safety regulations. Responsibility for ensuring all domestic and imported food products, except for most meat and poultry, is held by the FDA. This responsibility includes insuring that the products are safe, nutritious and accurately labeled. Egg safety is shared with FSIS. FSIS regulates the safety and proper labeling of most domestic and imported meat and poultry, and the products derived from them for human consumption. The FSIS inspects all cattle, sheep, swine, goats and horses before and after processing. This oversight continues when the meat and poultry is further processed into packaged food products.

Three of the reforms that are being looked at include giving mandatory recall authority to federal agencies. Currently, USDA inspectors have the authority to detain meat at any point in the inspection process, when there is a suspicion that a product may not be safe. Products may also be removed from the market if they are suspected to be unsafe or mis-labeled. However, the USDA does not have the ability to recall meat, and relies on voluntary compliance. In reality, USDA and independent recalls are very effective, since the companies comply immediately and even act before a request is ever made.

Secondly, there is discussion of restricting or reducing the existing ports of entry for agricultural imports. This concept will not result in safer imports, but will impede the flow of trade. A consolidation would cause an increase in trade volume at the remaining port of entry inspection stations. These points of entry are already lacking sufficient resources and would be overwhelmed with an increase in volume. This reduction would likely cause retaliatory action by our trading partners and result in restrictions on the ports of entry for United States exports, which is an $80 billion contributor to the economy.

Third, is the idea of combining all food safety agencies into one entity. While on the surface, this may seem like a logical approach, it is questionable whether the new agency would be any more effective without a major increase in funding and resources. Further, each currently involved agency already has the knowledge and expertise to perform their respective duties.

There are three primary principles that should be adhered to. First, Congress MUST NOT create a new federal agency. Second, emphasis should be placed on improving the science and risk-based detection methods. Third, indemnification should be available for producers who suffer marketing losses due to inaccurate government-advised recalls and warnings. Existing laws and structure are effective in guarding against food dangers.

Four bills have been introduced so far.

HR 759 (Dingell), the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act will be the primary vehicle for food safety reform. His bill would require the Secretary to (1) Establish science based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of at-risk fruits and vegetable; (2) Safety standards for growing, harvesting, packing, sorting and storage; and (3) Standards addressing manure use, water quality, and sanitation.

Much of this bill is redundant and simply increases production costs with little to no increase in food safety.

HR 875 (DeLauro), the Food Safety Modernization Act has six primary components. It would establish new inspection program guidelines; expand the food-borne illness surveillance system for food; establish a national traceability system for food; establish a national public education program on food safety; increase the focus on food safety research; and implement penalties for violations of food safety laws.

Portions of this bill could be beneficial if additional funding is approved for: (1) Educational programs and training for inspectors; (2) Increased research and development of scientifically based rapid testing procedures and protocols; (3) Additional science based inspection, targeted according to risk; and (4) Increased funding for the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank.

HR 1332 (Costa) and S 510 (Durbin), would both create: (1) New mandatory food safety requirements on farms and food companies; (2) Strengthen the relationship between federal and state agencies; and (3) Provide new FDA powers to recall contaminated food.

The first objective in these bills is unnecessary and duplicative. The second objective is highly recommended and encouraged. The third objective could work, as long as there is an indemnification program available to producers who suffer marketing losses due to inaccurate government-advised recalls and warnings.

I encourage all of you to follow the developments on food safety legislation very closely and share your thoughts and opinions with your representatives.

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