Wednesday, July 07, 2010

President Urges Passage of Food Safety Legislation

Today from the White House, President Obama called on the Senate to take action on S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which has seen no action on the Senate floor since it was unanimously voted out of committee in November of 2009.

"This bipartisan bill would complement the work already undertaken by the Food Safety Working Group," President Obama said. "The bill addresses longstanding challenges in the food safety and defense system by promoting a prevention-oriented approach to the safety of our food supply and provides the Federal Government with the appropriate tools to accomplish its core food safety goals."

The President also lauded his administration's efforts to improve food safety, noting that a year ago today, his Food Safety Working Group, led by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, announced key findings on how to upgrade the food safety system. He also thanked the House for passing landmark food safety legislation last July, but noted that "there is more to be done."

Food safety advocates could not agree more. S. 510 boosts FDA's authority and mandate in food recalls and regulating safety oversight and testing, at a time when America continues to be plagued by a seemingly endless series of foodborne disease outbreaks and food recalls.

Improving food safety is not only a public health imperative, but also an economic imperative: Jumbo food recalls can cost--literally--billions of dollars, as consumers, who seem to have very long memories, refuse to purchase products even after tainted food recalls are over. America's spinach growers can attest to this, as can the peanut butter industry, as just a few examples. It could be argued that improving food safety is also a moral imperative, as Sec. Vilsack has suggested when he discusses the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Last week, Sec. Vilsack pledged that school foods will be far safer, too.

But during the 111th Congress, the Senate's time has been claimed by plenty of other issues and legislation, as well as partisan stonewalling...something the President has frequently complained about, in public. The Senate has dragged its collective feet on passing S. 510, which will help move America's foodchain into the 21st century. Perhaps this is yet another reason that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recently got a very personal Presidential Tour of First Lady Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden. Food--all aspects of it--is important to the Obama White House. Update: Reid's presidential Kitchen Garden tour was reportedly more to woo him to pass child nutrition legislation; the mission was accomplished by unanimous consent on August 5.

In March of 2009, President Obama rightly dubbed America's outdated food safety system and standards "a hazard to public health," and his administration has made major efforts to change this scenario. The Senate is still on recess from the July 4 holiday, but many food safety advocates are optimistic that S. 510 will be taken up in the next work period, before the month-long August recess. Senate staff tend to agree there is a possibility, but the timing, as it has for months, remains uncertain. Among other things, the bill is competing with Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination, the climate bill, and jobless benefits for floor time.

President Obama's full statement:

A year ago today, the Food Safety Working Group, chaired by Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, announced key findings on how to upgrade the food safety system. Since then, my Administration has taken steps to reduce the prevalence of E. coli, implemented new standards to reduce exposure to Campylobacter, and issued a rule to control Salmonella contamination. Among other accomplishments, the FDA has conducted a pilot study on a tracing system, and HHS, in collaboration with USDA, has rolled out an enhanced and updated www.foodsafety.gov site to provide consumers rapid access to information on food recalls.

But there is more to be done. Today, I thank the House for its work and support efforts in the Senate to pass S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. This bipartisan bill would complement the work already undertaken by the Food Safety Working Group. The bill addresses longstanding challenges in the food safety and defense system by promoting a prevention-oriented approach to the safety of our food supply and provides the Federal Government with the appropriate tools to accomplish its core food safety goals.

*Reuters photo