New Agriculture Chief Talks Food Safety

Jan 27, 2009

By George

The new Agriculture
Secretary Tom Vilsak said the U.S. needs to modernize its food safety system
before it tackles the issue of whether responsibility for protecting what
Americans eat should be reorganized from the current system, where multiple
agencies are sometimes not communicating with one another or, worse yet,
working at cross purposes.

"A modernized
system would have as a goal prevention, early detection if it can’t be
prevented, and mitigation of any adverse impacts if something occurs," Mr. Vilsak said
in a conference call with reporters.

think before there can be any conversation about merging of entities or
a single agency or anything of that sort, you’ve got to get the foundation

The new secretary
pointed to the case of individuals in over 40 states being sickened by
salmonella-tainted peanut butter as an issue where Agriculture might not
have a direct regulatory role but where communication is still critical
between agencies.

there is nothing connected directly with USDA, it’s not a product that
we necessarily regulate, it is a product that could potentially get into
some of the systems that we are responsible for, the school lunch programs
and nutrition programs. So we want to make sure that everybody is aware
of the concerns about peanut butter and are taking the steps necessary
to guard against it."

a group of 10 organizations, including the American Frozen Food Institute,
Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers Association, International
Bottled Water Association, International Dairy Foods Association, National
Fisheries Institute, National Restaurant Association, Retail Industry Leaders
Association, Snack Food Association and the United Fresh Produce Association,
sent a letter to Congress asking for changes to the food safety system.
This included giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority
to establish standards for fruits and vegetables and increased power when
it comes to food recalls. It also urged Congress to require
foreign supplier safety plans and to improve its ability to inspect products

Discussion Question:
What steps must the federal government and those involved in the agricultural,
manufacturing/processing, retailing and foodservice industries take to
create the strongest possible safeguards for the nation’s food supply?

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8 Comments on "New Agriculture Chief Talks Food Safety"

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Ryan Mathews
13 years 3 months ago

In a simple phrase–hire more inspectors.

Len Lewis
Len Lewis
13 years 3 months ago

You want to give FDA more powers, you better give them some teeth to go with it.

The entire food safety and inspection system needs to be overhauled. Right now it is a fat-laden, inefficient group of bureaucracies and the people in charge are sometimes more concerned about protecting the industry than the American public. Kind of like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

It is time to do something big. The time for Band-Aids is over.

Bill Bittner
Bill Bittner
13 years 3 months ago
The simple answer for managing food safety is the ability to track a consumer unit back to its production lot. This means that whether it is a can of peas, a frozen dinner, or an apple you should be able to determine where a unit was created or grown and how it was transported to the final consumer. The information would include the production lot or date picked and whatever additional identification is necessary to identify the origin. It makes sense for federal standards to dictate what must be captured and how chain of ownership will be determined. Federal standards prevent manufacturers from needing to deal with conflicting state laws. The simple standard says that each “owner” must be able to identify their source and where they sent each product. Prepared foods get complicated because ingredients from different sources get combined into various finished products. The challenge with setting federal standards is that other countries may see them as barriers to international trade. Products that are imported may not have all the details necessary to… Read more »
Gene Detroyer
13 years 3 months ago
It surprises me that so many industry groups are asking for changes to the food safety system. Industry for years has lobbied against government involvement in food safety. USDA has been notoriously understaffed with inspectors. Each time there has been a movement to increase the inspection team, lobbyists have successfully stopped it. So, the first step is to hire enough inspectors. In China, those who have been responsible for breakdowns in product safety have been jailed and worse. There is no place for the “worse” in the United States, but jail is a good option. Penalties in industry have to be severe enough. There should never be an economic analysis that determines the internal cost of getting caught. Penalties should be severe enough so breaking the rules is never an issue. With regard to penalties, we don’t seem to see those executives responsible as being criminals. But, it is proven over and over again that lapses in food safety kill more people than gun-carrying criminals. Yet, the penalties for gun-carrying criminals are considerably more life… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
13 years 3 months ago

Standards mean nothing without inspection and enforcement of the standards.

Mary Baum
Mary Baum
13 years 3 months ago
One thing that has stuck in my mind since it happened was the tainted-spinach episode, in which the pathogen got into the plant cells themselves because the irrigation system used tainted water in the fields. I imagine that was in another country, only because I perhaps wrongly presume we don’t have tainted water to use here. And I would think that’s an issue for USDA either to fix, based on the comments above (I couldn’t agree more!) or negotiate with other countries. I was tempted to add the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” as a tongue-in-cheek parenthetical above, but then realized that snark isn’t always the best way to solve a problem. Then it occurred to me that in some other fields, when we trade with other countries, they occasionally ask for technology transfers in return–or the deal doesn’t fly. Now, I realize rogue economies get that name for a reason–but if we could make it worth their while to at least stop watering their vegetables with coliforms, then we have a basis for negotiating the… Read more »
Jeff Weitzman
Jeff Weitzman
13 years 3 months ago

The safeguarding of our food supply is a complex and critical issue. Lawrence M. Wein of Stanford wrote about the nation’s milk supply a few years ago, and how easily it could be the target of a terrorist attack using botulism.

Similar distribution channels and the potential for harm exist in other products. As Wein notes at the end of the article, we don’t lack the means to safeguard the supply, we really lack the will to pay for it.

Mark Lilien
13 years 3 months ago

Jeff is 100% right: will Americans pay for food safety? Certainly Republican administrations don’t think so. Would the majority? Would the Democrats? Or should the liability laws be strengthened to force high-limit insurance policies for food suppliers? Then everyone in the supply chain would have a great incentive to police themselves and each other without direct government overhead.


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