President's Food Safety Working Group launched

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The President’s Food Safety Working Group convened a "listening session" May 13 during which legislators as well as representatives of government, consumer and industry organizations shared information and views on updating and improving the nation’s food safety system. The session took place shortly after President Barack Obama provided details of a major increase in funding for the Food and Drug Administration in his fiscal 2010 budget and as Congress began consideration of four bills — three in the House and one in the Senate — that may form the basis of new food safety legislation this year.

Mr. Obama announced his intention to establish the working group in March.

"This working group will bring together cabinet secretaries and senior officials to advise me on how we can upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century, foster coordination throughout the government, and ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them," Mr. Obama said. The president charged the working group to make specific recommendations "as soon as possible."

The president named Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as co-chairs of the working group, and both were on hand to open the group’s initial listening session. Also speaking at the listening session’s opening plenary were congressional leaders who sponsored food safety reform bills during the current session: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Representatives John Dingell of Michigan and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

Ms. Sebelius said in opening the conference, "We know that change begins with one word: prevention. Today’s food safety system responds to crises. We need a system that prevents contamination in the first place. A new system will depend upon good data. It must engage industry at every level, and it must provide for high-quality inspections and effective enforcement by public agencies. When outbreaks do occur, we must respond quickly, both to protect the public and to speed the recovery of affected industries."

Ms. Sebelius pointed to the substantial new investment in food safety provided in the president’s fiscal 2010 budget. The budget includes more than $1 billion for food safety, an increase of $259.3 million from the current year. Ms. Sebelius said with the new resources, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would further develop its national surveillance system in order to detect and respond more quickly to foodborne illness outbreaks, and the F.D.A. would be able to develop an integrated food safety system with states and localities, develop new standards for prevention and increase inspections.

"Today is the beginning of a significant and critical process that will fully review the safety of our nation’s food supply," Mr. Vilsack said.

He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture was reviewing the Federal Meat Inspection Act, existing Hazard Analysis and Critical

Control Point regulations, its enforcement authorities and how it collects data.

"While we are doing a good job, we at U.S.D.A. can always do better," Mr. Vilsack said.

He asked for stakeholder input on a variety of issues, including prevention and response to outbreaks as well as the best ways to allocate food safety resources. Mr. Vilsack said the listening session was only the beginning of outreach and public comments may be submitted to www.foodsafetyworkinggroup.gov.

Mr. Durbin, Mr. Dingell and Ms. DeLauro spoke on their food safety reform bills. Ms. DeLauro’s bill, H.R. 875, aims to restructure the F.D.A., separating the agency’s food safety functions from its responsibilities for drugs and medical devices, and assigning one individual to manage F.D.A. food safety activities. That individual would report directly to the secretary of H.H.S. But, Ms. DeLauro added the working group would not fully live up to its mandate unless it considered the establishment of a single food safety agency that would bring under one roof functions currently carried out by 13 federal agencies, most prominently the U.S.D.A. and the F.D.A.

Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said following the listening session, "G.M.A. is pleased to have been at the table today to highlight specific ways our industry is developing innovative reforms to ensure the safety of our products." Ms. Bailey said the G.M.A. and its members are committed to partnering with the administration, Congress and the regulatory agencies to improve food safety.

G.M.A. outlines food safety initiatives

WASHINGTON — The Grocery Manufacturers Association on May 12 outlined private sector initiatives under way to improve food safety. Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer for the G.M.A., said, "Combined with quick enactment of the necessary legislative and regulatory reforms, these initiatives should significantly reduce the number and type of food recalls we have seen in recent years and strengthen our overall food safety system."

In a document titled "Prevention, Partnership, Planning: Supply Chain Initiatives to Improve Food Safety," the G.M.A. addressed initiatives in three areas: product recall modernization, accredited third-party food safety audit certification and modernization and implementation of good manufacturing practices (G.M.P.s) for food.

The G.M.A. pointed to its collaboration with the Food Marketing Institute and GS1 US, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the adoption and implementation of standards-based supply chain solutions. The F.M.I. and GS1 US, with the assistance of the G.M.A., created an electronic, Internet-based product recall portal that facilitates the rapid and accurate flow of information between manufacturers and retailers during product recalls.

The G.M.A. document advocated measures to increase the number of highly qualified third-party auditors employed to inspect food manufacturing facilities. To ensure the quality and integrity of auditors, the G.M.A. said policymakers and industry should encourage the engagement of auditors employed by certification bodies accredited to international standards by recognized organizations such as the American National Standards Institute.

"Ultimately, wider use of third-party certification/audits will reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses," the G.M.A. said.

The G.M.A. noted the Food and Drug Administration was is in the process of updating and reissuing G.M.P.s for food.

"Issuance of updated G.M.P.s is essential, and G.M.A. will provide industry-wide training and education to ensure rapid and widespread adoption of the new and updated G.M.P.s," the G.M.A. said.

Ms. Bailey commented, "In addition, we are developing enhanced food safety education and training for member and nonmember companies, assessing and enhancing our crisis management capability and expanding our ability to communicate directly with consumers during product recall to ensure industry is doing its part to protect consumers."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, May 26, 2009, starting on Page 32. Click here to search that archive.

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