Obama administration food safety changes take shape

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — The creation of a new position, deputy commissioner for foods, at the Food and Drug Administration is among a range of pending changes and proposals detailed this week by the Food Safety Working Group.

Also included in the group’s proposals was the development of industry product tracing systems. The group said that the F.D.A. will issue draft guidance within three months on steps the industry "can take to establish product tracing systems to improve our national capacity for detecting the origins of foodborne illness."

Both the new position and the proposed tracing systems were among "key findings" issued by the working group July 7.

Responsibilities of the Food Safety Working Group were first described in a March 14 address by President Barack Obama.

"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 government; and ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them," Mr. Obama said. "And I expect this group to report back to me with recommendations as soon as possible."

The group on July 1 submitted three "general principles" to the president that served as the basis for a series of specific recommendations:

1. Preventing harm to consumers is the first priority — "The working group recommends that food regulators shift toward prioritizing prevention and move aggressively to implement sensible measures designed to prevent problems before they occur," the group said. Key to success will be establishing rigorous standards and giving "regulatory agencies the tools necessary" to ensure the food industry complies.

2. Effective foods safety inspections and enforcement depend upon good data and analysis — "High quality information will help leading agencies know which foods are at risk, which solutions should be put into place and who should be responsible," the group said. Toward that end, the group said the government should prioritize "crucial inspection and enforcement activity across the world," support state and local safety efforts and use data to evaluate outcomes.

3. Outbreaks of foodborne illness should be identified quickly and stopped — A food tracing system that shortens the time between outbreak, detection resolution and recovery should be established. "It is in everyone’s interest for outbreaks to be rare in number, limited in scale and short in duration," the group said.

Elaborating on its recommendations, the group said the F.D.A. deputy commissioner for foods, reporting to the commissioner, "will be empowered to restructure and revitalize F.D.A.’s activities and work with the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

The group said a new position at the F.S.I.S. — chief medical officer — will be created within three months. This position will report to the undersecretary for food safety and "will enhance U.S.D.A.’s commitment to preventing foodborne illness."

A considerable portion of the group’s recommendations related to specific steps aimed at preventing Salmonella contamination and reducing the risk of E. coli.

In addition to the developing of industry product tracing systems, the group identified a number of areas for improvement, including creating a unified incident command system, strengthening the public health epidemiology program, updating emergency operations procedures, improving state capacity and using new technologies to communicate critical food safety information, enhancing the www.foodsafety.gov web site.

Beyond the new positions at the F.D.A. and the F.S.I.S., the group noted other steps needed to make the federal government more effective in its food safety role.

Going forward, the working group will "serve as a mechanism to break down stovepipes, address cross-cutting issues and increase coordination activities across the U.S. government," the group said. The secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S.D.A. will continue to head the group.

Additionally, the group said the Obama administration will work with Congress on legislation to give agencies the tools they need to "keep food safe." Many of the proposals already have been introduced in legislation.

"These tools include the ability to require sanitation and preventive controls at food facilities, based on a scientific hazard analysis; the ability to access basic food safety records at facilities; the ability to use resources flexibly to target food at the highest risk and achieve the maximum gain for public health; the ability to establish performance stands to measure the implementation of proper food safety procedures; and mandatory recall authority," the group said.

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