Monday, January 03, 2011

Amidst Worries About Congressional Funding, Hamburg & Sebelius Discuss Food Safety Bill

Hamburg pledges to work with industry and advocates to persuade Congress to cough up $1.4 billion; Sebelius says Maine lobster and Chilean Sea Bass will soon be equally safe...
UPDATE, Jan. 4: President Obama signed the bill on Jan. 4, 2010
Fresh off Air Force One from an 11-day family vacation in Hawaii, President Obama will sign the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act late on Tuesday, albeit with little fanfare. According to the White House, there is no signing ceremony planned, though food safety has been a priority for the President since he took office (in fact, the signing is not even noted on the President's official schedule for Tuesday). And as the sweeping overhaul of the nation's food safety system becomes law, there is concern over the $1.4 billion price tag. Republicans now control the House, and have pledged to shrink--rather than expand--the federal bureaucracy.

On Twitter today, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the incoming chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced his "initial oversight investigations lineup," and included "the safety of American food/medicine and effectiveness of @FDArecalls." Issa said the same thing yesterday, on Fox News Sunday.

During an afternoon conference call organized by the White House on Monday, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg was sanguine as reporters queried her about the possibility of the legislation not being funded. She said she is committed to working with food industry and advocacy groups to persuade Congress to appropriate the money, citing the new, prevention-based measure as the biggest change in food safety since FDA was created "at the turn of the last century."

“Shifting from a reactive to a preventive mode is something that we are committed to doing,’’ Dr. Hamburg said. “Congress has clearly given us the mandate to take that on, industry wants to work with us.’’

Hamburg, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, repeatedly praised the bill's many elements, in particular its focus on science-based prevention. The Secretary is co-chair of President Obama's Food Safety Working Group, created last year to advise Mr. Obama on how to improve the flailing US food safety system.

"Many of those recommendations are reflected in the law President Obama plans to sign tomorrow," Sebelius said. "It will bring our food safety system into the 21st century."

The current safety system has been a hodge-podge of federal, state and local responses to foodborne disease outbreaks after they occur, rather than preventing them before there's a body count and a long trail of illnesses. Sebelius said that under the new legislation, the federal government will now be able to assure consumers that “sea bass from Chile’’ meets the same safety standards “as lobster that we get out of the shores of Maine.’’

Annually, about 48 million Americans become ill from tainted food, with about 125,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 fatalities, according to the latest survey from the CDC, issued in December of 2010. About 80 percent of seafood that Americans consume is imported, Hamburg noted, and Sebelius added that 1/6th of all food served in America is also imported.

"In an increasingly globalized food economy, we must work closely with foreign governments," Dr. Hamburg said. "FDA will have the authority if needed to block food from importers or countries."

Both Sebelius and Hamburg lauded the "new tools" the legislation provides, including the mandatory recall power.

What if Congress doesn't fund the legislation?
Asked what FDA will actually be able to accomplish under the new measure if Congress fails to appropriate the funding, Dr. Hamburg pointed again to FDA's mandatory recall power, and to the opportunity the legislation affords for setting science-based regulations.

"There's a lot we can do quickly and meaningfully," Dr. Hamburg said. "Putting forth produce safety standards, putting into place prevention and control measures."

Still, the new produce safety standards will not be in place for at least a year, Dr. Hamburg added, and pointed out that in the near-term, consumers won't be very aware of the impact of the legislation; much of it will be "invisible," as FDA gets up to speed. The mandatory recalls, she said, will be the most obvious change.

Erik Olson, who is the director of Food and Consumer Product Safety Programs at Pew Health Group, was also on the conference call, representing a coalition of advocates who worked hard to get the legislation passed. Olson said that a study conducted by his organization found that the financial burden of foodborne disease to public health is about $152 billion annually.

"That dwarfs any funding of the legislation," Olson said. "We fought very hard for this historic public health protection."

“The costs of not going forward to put in place this kind of approach are simply unacceptable,’’ Dr. Hamburg said.

"For the first time, FDA will be able to hold bad actors responsible," Dr. Hamburg added.

Click here for a summary of the food safety legislation.

See also: Upcoming Obama food & Ag initiatives for 2011