The President's “Food Safety Working Group,” chaired by the Secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services (Kathleen Sebelius) and the Department of Agriculture (Tom Vilsack), was conceived to help modernize our food safety system. The group intends to foster “collaborative partnerships with consumers, industry and regulatory partners” and, through a transparent process, “build a food safety system to meet the challenges posed by a global food supply in the 21st century.” Click on the following link to visit the President’s Food Safety Working Group Website.
Last week, the Food Safety Working Group held its first “Listening Session” at the White House. Participants included numerous stakeholders representing a diverse range of organizations. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, who delivered the opening remarks, told participants that food Safety is of the highest concern for all of us. Although Vilsack noted that “Americans enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world,” he also stated that more can should be done to improve food safety at all levels. Vilsack’s remarks are included below:
Welcome. Thank you for taking time to join us this morning.
Food Safety is of the highest concern for all of us here today. While Americans enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world, we have witnessed too many outbreaks that make us worry that the food on our dinner plate or in our child’s lunch box will harm instead of nourish. This is not acceptable.
Today is the beginning of a significant and critical process that will fully review the safety of our nation’s food supply.
President Obama has pledged his full support in this matter and has charged the Food Safety Working Group with examining all aspects of food safety, be it meat or produce, fresh or frozen, whether it is imported, or produced domestically.
This issue will be one of USDA’s highest priorities. We are in the midst of reviewing all of our statutory authorities, as well as administrative and regulatory steps we can take, to ensure that our actions support public health and consumer safety to the fullest extent.
We have reviewed the Federal Meat Inspection Act, looked over our existing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point regulations, reviewed our enforcement authorities, and looked at how we collect data. While we are doing a good job, we at USDA can always do better.
I’d like to outline several specific challenges we need your input on:
• Prevention. The key to a functioning food safety system is preventing foodborne illness. That means robust standards and sufficient authorities to prevent illnesses from occurring. Both FDA and USDA have embraced this principle and we must have a consistent approach.
• Surveillance and Response. Our regulatory agencies must actively watch for disease outbreaks and take rapid action to ensure that we have effective and targeted recalls. Such recalls are in the interests of public health and the strength of industry sectors that might otherwise be tarnished by massive recalls.
• As many people know first hand, in this economy we do not have unlimited resources. Nor can we simply pass higher food production costs onto struggling consumers. We must ensure that we are allocating our food safety resources effectively and efficiently. That means focusing the most attention on the products that have the most potential to cause harm.
• The safety of a product should not be determined by where it originated. We live in a global community and by working more closely with our partners around the world we can make sure that the food the US is importing is as safe as the food we are exporting.
• All parts of the food safety system need to coordinate and work together in a seamless fashion. The FDA and USDA must do a better job of coordinating and I know that Secretary Sebelius and I will drive our agencies to improve coordination.
• Industry, government, and consumer: each of us brings a piece of the puzzle. We can only solve this if all pieces are represented. It is time for us to set aside past frustrations, collaborate, and move forward together.
Finally, we need to develop a way to measure our success. I am confident that by working together, we will make improvements to the safety of our food supply. But we need a way to track our progress both in the short and long term, so that we do not settle for merely okay, but continually strive for improvement. Lives are at stake and good is simply not good enough.
Thank you again for joining us today.
The Secretary also thanked the participants’ mutual commitment to food safety, highlighted the Administration’s broad support for the modernization of food safety initiatives, and pointed to new and enhanced coordination between HHS and USDA to support this goal.
ViIsack also challenged government, industry and consumers to work more closely to improve food safety. This is good advice.
In the end, we all shoulder responsibility (whether producing or preparing food) to ensure that the meals we serve to our families are, indeed, as safe as they can possibly be.