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The Ag Agenda

April 2008

Changing our Path to Food Safety

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

With the handful of food scares over the past several years, it seems that everyone and their brother is coming out of the woodwork to offer up proposals to change the U.S. food safety system. As they say in Texas, there’s more rhetoric and notions going around than you can shake a stick at. In truth, we need to cut through all these weeds and take a thoughtful look at our food safety system; where we are and where we need to be.

Is our current food inspection system perfect? No, not by any stretch. Is there room for improvement? Yes, there always is. Yet, in saying that, truth be told, Americans should feel confident that they continue to have one of the safest food supplies in the world.

It’s a Small World

There are currently 26 bills in Congress attempting to address food safety concerns, with proposals such as mandatory recall, user fees for inspections and forming a single food safety agency. While it’s likely these bills will get rolled into larger pieces of legislation, the existing multitude of proposals demonstrates an increasing skepticism in public sentiment.

Problems with foodborne illness that have occurred within the past several years have been from both domestic and foreign products. The light bulb, or I should say the flood light, went on in consumers’ minds last year with the China pet food scare. At that point, the safety of imported food came under extreme scrutiny.

The Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for regulating 80 percent of our food supply (the Agriculture Department is responsible for 20 percent with jurisdiction over meat, poultry and processed eggs), relies on a single entry point inspection as food products cross our borders. Unfortunately because of lack of funding and resources, 2 percent of all imports are actually inspected.

Because of this, the FDA has devised a food protection plan that shifts from relying on a single point of inspection to a more comprehensive plan that monitors foreign products throughout the entire production chain – from the farm to the fork. The Farm Bureau-supported concept encompasses both unintentional (foodborne illness) and intentional (bioterrorism) food threats.

USDA already has in place fairly substantial regulations on overseas protections, including rules that each country whose food we import must have a safety system in place that is deemed equivalent to ours.

Home on the Range

Domestically, we have seen an increase in food contamination threats that parallels America’s drive toward modern convenience. For example, prior to pre-cut and bagged lettuce and other leafy greens, consumers cut and prepared their own produce. If there were harmful bacteria on a head of lettuce, illness was usually isolated to a single family. Now, with processing and packaging, pieces of that contaminated chopped head of lettuce could get thrown into 50 different bags and shipped to anywhere from Seattle to St. Petersburg, thus broadening the level of risk from a single household to nationwide.

While contamination can occur throughout all stages of food production, farmers are certainly ready to step up our efforts to help eliminate all risks. Under the FDA plan, producers would be required to implement new food safety procedures, such as well water testing and worker sanitation practices, on what is known as at-risk products like strawberries, leafy greens and melons, or products with a history of risk.

Farm Bureau believes increased funding is necessary for both FDA and USDA to carry out their respective food safety missions. We also think a system needs to be in place that ensures food imports meet U.S. standards. Further, the inclusion of generally accepted agriculture practices for at-risk products within the FDA plan needs to be based on sound science.

Farmers will continue to strive toward producing one of the safest food supplies in the world, while working with Congress, FDA and USDA to provide consumers with a topnotch food safety system. But to do so, it’s time we cut through the weeds and head down the path of well thought-out direction.