Thursday, June 25, 2009

Food Safety Still Getting A "D" In Obama Era, Despite Early Moves To Enter 21st Century

Consumer Confidence Has Crumbled Regarding Food Safety, Thanks to Massive Product Recalls...And That "D" Grade Is For Dangerous...
A new study from IBM finds that sixty percent of eaters surveyed are worried that the food they consume may well be poisoned. That's not a surprise, given the terrible foodsafetyscape that President Obama inherited. But it's not just an inheritance problem anymore: The Obama administration is being rocked with the same kinds of recalls that have plagued every other presidential administration. In the last two months, there's been more than 300,000 pounds of ground beef recalled, the Nestle Toll House cookie dough recall is scaring the heck out of cookie lovers everywhere, and now comes even worse news that points to how ineffective FDA still is at managing recalls of contaminated food. The salmonella-tainted pistachio nuts that were recalled for contamination two months ago were not destroyed--they were simply repackaged, and are now back in the food chain. That's harrowing, and yet to be expected...because FDA has no firm recall powers, cannot enact criminal sanctions, and is still overburdened and underfunded. (At top of post: Obama chocolate chip cookies, from the archive)

The President's new Food Safety Working Group is a swell idea, but the gang needs to be meeting on a weekly basis. To date, there have been two meetings, one glossy website, and no visible action. Membership in the group has also been kept a tightly guarded secret; Ag Secretary Vilsack is on board, as is HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Drs. Hamburg and Sharfstein of FDA...but who else is giving advice? And what does that advice entail? Worried eaters everywhere want to know: 83 percent of the respondents to the IBM survey could identify, by name, a food product that was recalled in the past two years due to contamination. 63 percent confirmed they would not buy the food until the source of contamination had been found and addressed (adios, Nestle profits, because no one has any idea how E Coli got into the cookie dough; E coli is usually a pathogen associated with cow dung). 49 percent of the respondents also said that they'd be unlikely to purchase a food product again if it was recalled due to contamination. Food safety is not only a public health issue, it's also a huge economic issue, at a time when the country can ill afford any more debilitating economic crises. Meantime, various food safety bills are crawling through Congress, and getting eviscerated as they move from committee to committee, with certain compromises happening that endanger American eaters, in the name of appeasing industrial Ag interests. That's not even worth blogging about in full, because none of the Bills are near a full vote in either the House or Senate.

As food safety issues continue to plague the American food chain, the USDA remains devoid of an under secretary to head its own division, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which monitors all of the nation's meat, poultry and eggs. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has cited conflict of interest with vetted candidates as the key reason FSIS remains unguided, but now there's a new campaign brewing, from Food Democracy Now! and other food activist groups, to encourage the Secretary to finally name pre-eminent food poisoning attorney Bill Marler as his meat man (Mr. Marler, in pic).

Ob Fo has long been an advocate of Mr. Marler, who is a world renowned food safety specialist, thanks to a long career as both a safety activist and the most successful prosecutor of food poisoners in the history of the US. Mr. Marler has gone through the entire administration vetting process for FSIS under secretary, including visits from the FBI, and trips to Washington. Happily, he's also paid his taxes, and he's never been registered as a lobbyist for food and Ag issues...so no worries there.

Secretary Vilsack has shown himself to be quite visionary in the last six months, as he's taken on the herculean task of reforming and managing the USDA, which has an almost unbelievably huge mandate. He's made all kinds of terrific appointments, and surrounded himself with experienced professionals who will help bring the USDA into the 21st century. Bill Marler would be just this kind of visionary appointment to lead FSIS. And the timing couldn't be better, because it's BBQ season after all, and the hamburgers are going to be hitting the grill in record numbers...as meat recalls continue to flood the marketplace. Update: As this was being posted, the FSIS was sending out notice of a new Class 1 (you could die) meat recall, for more than 41,000 pounds of ground beef contaminated with E coli.

*President Obama image by Farmer Berry. Chocolate chip Obama cookies from Londonist.