March 8, 2010
Has the FDA’s experiment with self-policing failed? This was the question posed by Marc Ambinder, Politics Editor at The Atlantic, at the Food Summit hosted by The Atlantic Monthly on March 4. Ambinder noted that until the spinach, pet food, and baby formula scares in 2006, 2007, and 2008, funding for the FDA during the Bush era remained flat, on the theory that companies could and would ensure the safety of food products on their own.
Attendees may have sensed a shift towards more regulation from FDA officials who spoke at the Forum. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg cited food safety as one of the top issues on the agency’s agenda, and lauded the food safety legislation currently before Congress. Hamburg noted that the legislation would give the FDA some powerful new regulatory tools such as traceback requirements and mandatory recall authority. Another indication of change: just one day before Hamburg’s appearance at the Food Forum, the FDA issued warnings threatening legal action to 17 manufacturers about 22 food labels that the agency deemed false or misleading.
But if large food manufacturers are feeling more regulatory heat, they didn’t let on at the Food Forum. General Mills’ Vice President of Quality and Regulatory Operations Elizabeth Westring said the food industry “has enjoyed a great relationship with regulators” and said General Mills was “fully supportive” of FDA having mandatory recall authority. Westring and McCormick & Company President and CEO Alan Wilson both praised the proposed food safety bill, and downplayed the impact that the legislation could have on small producers and processors. When pressed on this point by Ambinder, who asked if holding everyone to the same standard without giving small companies the resources to do so was just “favoring the big guys,” Westring replied, “Food safety is the price of admission. If you’re going to play in this space, you have to have a basic standard that everyone complies with.”
While panelists did not tread into the details of what such a standard would look like, Director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Stephen Sundlof did acknowledge that the FDA was mindful of the lessons learned from the California leafy greens marketing agreement. He stated that because of this experience, the legislation pending in Congress requires the agency to consider the impact of any regulation on small and organic producers.
NSAC will continue to work with the USDA, the FDA, and members of Congress to educate and provide guidance so that new legislation does not undermine the administration’s efforts to develop more robust local and regional food systems or undermine conservation measures on the part of producers. To stay informed of NSAC’s work, sign up for our weekly roundup and action alerts.
With regard to the threat of antibiotic resistance due to sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals, Hamburg acknowledged that the issue was “a pressing concern, and one that the FDA has not addressed even though we understand it.” Hamburg’s own experience includes researching the problem of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis in humans.
Erik Olson, Director of Food and Consumer Product Safety at the Pew Health Group/Pew Charitable Trusts, noted that “there is pending legislation that would address this issue, but it is very controversial.”
For more information on solutions to the problem of antibiotic resistance, go to the wise antibiotics page of the Food and Agriculture Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an NSAC member organization.