In early January, President Barack Obama signed into law new food safety regulations that are the most dramatic changes to American food safety practices in over 70 years.
“The Food Safety bill will provide the Federal Government with improved tools to prevent foodborne illness and address challenges in the food safety system by promoting a prevention-oriented approach,” said Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary. “Protecting consumers from harm is a fundamental function of government and with passage of this landmark food safety legislation, USDA remains committed to keeping food safety a top priority.”
The changes have generated some concerns within the agricultural industry, however. “Food safety knows no size, and exempting some small producers and processors from the legislation, as the Tester/Hagan amendment will do, sets a dangerous precedent for the future our nation’s food safety system. Instead of including the Tester/Hagan language, Congress should have passed legislation to set appropriate standards for all products in the marketplace, no matter the size of the producing entity,” said Kristina Butts, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) executive director of legislative affairs. “Going forward, NCBA will continue supporting improvements to our nation’s food safety system that are based on sound science, focused on industry application and have a strong research foundation.”
The new rules place additional mandates on the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish new standards for food safety. But concerns have arisen regarding who would bear the responsibility of implementing such standards.
“Everyone is responsible and has a role in promoting food safety,” said Mike Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods. “The primary responsibility is in the private sector, and they will have increased accountability; however, Congress has directed FDA to develop a set of standards that guide practices on the farm in terms of food safety. We’ve visited with farmers to develop a set of standards that will work.”
Taylor added that Congress’ message to the FDA is that they were not to remain as an isolated regulatory group, but rather work with farmers and the community, promoting food safety. He believes most farmers are committed to food safety and do a good job, but there is always room for improvement.
Elizabeth Hagen, USDA’s under secretary for food safety, echoed Taylor’s comments about the importance of farmers and ranchers working with regulators to achieve food safety.
“No one is more important in the farm-to-fork system than the farmer,” Hagen said.
Hagen said that prevention is at the core of food safety improvements. She supports focusing on traceability of food-borne illnesses and using feedback from producers to prevent future outbreaks. She said FSIS should focus on using science-based policy to create rules and regulations for food safety.
“We used to smell, touch and taste our way to food safety,” but technology has advanced all of this. “We don’t want new laws; we want them to work better.”
She also said FSIS consumer education campaigns on proper food handling practices and accurate information on product recalls are important. As evidence of this renewed effort focused on outreach, Hagen spoke of a new partnership with FSIS and the Ad Council for an advertising campaign on preventing food-borne illness.
Hagan said newfound safety efforts must be “people-focused.” She repeatedly stated that above all, food safety impacts the families of loved ones and that rules should not lose focus on that basic element.
“We know where our jurisdiction begins and ends,” Hagen said. “We are not looking to expand our jurisdiction. We’re looking for ideas. We’re looking for people to come together. We’d like to pair our scientists with farmers to help them get the answers they’re looking for to see if efforts on food safety are worth (the farmers’) time and if it will make food safer.”