Saturday, March 14, 2009

Obama Announces Big Changes In Food Safety, With New Noms And The Creation of The Food Safety Working Group

A toast is in order for President Obama, and we've chosen the Baroque Obama cocktail, left, to take care of the job (recipe below).

In his weekly address today, the President announced important movement in food safety, because ''...protecting the safety of our food and drugs is one of the most fundamental responsibilities government has." Going on the record with that seemingly simple statement is a huge change from the former free-market economy blather that's led to the current debacle that exists within the American food chain.

In his address, the President discusses the nomination of Dr. Margaret Hamburg as Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (in pic), and Dr. Joshua Sharfstein as the Principal Deputy Commissioner. And while Dr. Hamburg's only relationship to food policy is her name and the fact that she eats, she's a seasoned professional with long experience in public health. Her specialty as a bioterrorism expert is swell for food safety, since food-borne disease outbreaks are essentially mini-pandemics spread by tainted chow.

And Dr. Sharfstein, while also lacking direct food safety experience, has a reputation for pushback with overzealous pharmaceutical companies. This is vitally important for food safety, too, due to the explosion of random, off-label use of antibiotics in industrialized farming. Nicholas Kristof will be taking a hard look at this in his column tomorrow in the New York Times.

The Food Safety Working Group, And A Warning About Cosmetic Bureaucracy
Although having a single food safety agency has gotten much buzz since the peanut butter salmonella scandal broke (and is the goal of three different Bills introduced in the House and Senate), it seems unlikely this will happen in the immediate future. Today the President also announced the creation of a new Food Safety Working Group, and it seems clear that rather than trying to re-invent the wheel at a moment in time when the American food system is in crisis mode, the White House is looking to coordinate all the resources currently available to monitor food safety. The FSWG will be chaired by the very bizzy Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Ag; and Kathleen Sebelius, the nom for Secretary of Health and Human Services (in pic). With luck, it'll be filled with senior officials from other agencies who will advise the President on improving food safety coordination throughout the government, and there'll be an attempt to upgrade food safety laws, as well as better enforce existing laws. But let's be honest: Sec. Vilsack is exceptionally bizzy turning the USDA into the New Energy Department, and Kathleen Sebelious is charged with a total revamp of the nation's health care system. It's worrisome....

Because in comparison to having a single agency monitor food, amping up the old system is a Baroque approach, highly detailed, with all kinds of rational actors and unconnected cogs...and we'll see if it works. To remind, there are currently twelve different regulatory agencies that can impact the Obama cupcakes on your Lincoln china. For instance, the menu for the recent Charm Offensive Dinner included salmon from Canada, produce from at least three different states, dairy products, grains, and wine, and thus the ingredients were regulated by the USDA, the FDA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Bureau of Commerce. That's a lot of federal activity for a couple hours of wooing Republicans! There's also, currently, underfunding for inspectors and inspections, outdated lab equipment and an almost complete lack of coordination and communication between the CDC, the FDA, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service...and...and...and things couldn't possibly get any worse. Unless, of course, the looming Hog-MRSA disaster gets wildly out of hand rapidly. But the President pledged to change this, by bringing food safety "into the 21st Century." If he even brings it into the 20th Century, we'd be in far better shape.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), sponsor of H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act, which seeks to remove food oversight from the FDA, has already issued a warning about moving forward with the current system in place. While she applauds the creation of the FSWG, Rep. DeLauro points out that:

It is imperative that the Administration ensures that the working group is not merely a cosmetic bureaucratic endeavor. The working group must produce definitive recommendations that result in the modernization of our food safety regulatory structure and an integration of our food safety functions.

Right on, Rosa!

It's all About The Kids
In his address, the President makes sure to mention that Dr. Hamburg is a mother, and that Dr. Sharfstein, a pediatrician, has worked to protect children from unsafe medications, and goes on to invoke Sasha, again, as the Poster Child for Food Safety:

In the end, food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your President, but as a parent. When I heard peanut products were being contaminated earlier this year, I immediately thought of my 7-year old daughter, Sasha, who has peanut butter sandwiches for lunch probably three times a week. No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch.

The President also made the excellent announcement that USDA has closed a loophole in current meat laws, and "downer" cows" will no longer be served for dinner. Nope, downer cows aren't cows with a depressive disorder; they're cows who are ill, which were previously allowed to be processed into the food chain. Yeah, that was a Barack O'Bummer, but it ain't happening any more.

And now on to our celebratory cocktail: The Baroque Obama It was created by Paystyle, a cocktail master and food blooger who posts at the international foodie site Umamimart. It's a super swell Baracktail, in that it refs Bam's history with its ingredients, which Ob Fo loves. All the best Baracktails seem to have Hawaiian, African, and even Chicago ingredients, to invoke beverage hope. The recipe:

The Baroque Obama

Place the following ingredients in a cocktail shaker with fresh ice:

2 parts Starr African Rum
1 part American gin (ie Bluecoat or Aviation gin)
3/4 part organic Hawaiian cane syrup
Dash of Hawaiian plum extract (sometimes labeled "Li Hing Powder")
1 part organic lime juice
Splash of Maraschino liqueur (ie Luxardo)

Shake vigorously (so as to "wake up the drink") and strain in a chilled cocktail glass.

--The Baroque Obama is regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FDA, the Commerce Department, and the USDA. Barack on!

*A video of Barack giving his weekly address is here. Video instructions for the Baroque Obama are here. Pic of Bam and Sasha is from their visit to the Kennedy Center, from Getty. *Baroque Obama photos by Vanessa Bahmani. Thanks to all our Cap Hill pals for info.