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Farm Foundation on Food Safety

April 8, 2009

Written by Mark Hertel, NSAC Policy Intern

On Tuesday, April 7, the Farm Foundation held a forum at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on “The Future of Food Safety Regulation.”

Jim Hodges, the American Meat Institute’s Executive Vice President for Food Safety and Inspection Services, argued that the food safety system for meat and poultry is basically sound, but acknowledged improvement may be possible.  He questioned the value of performance standards, saying they have not been shown to relate directly to desired public health outcomes, and he argued that adding to federal enforcement powers would be of little benefit, since federal power already extends to shutting down implicated producers in some instances.  Federal authority to initiate a mandatory recall of a food product is of limited benefit to the public, he said, because by the time the government becomes aware of a threat of food-borne illness, industry, motivated by its own commercial interests, would already have recalled the necessary products.

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, by contrast, argued that America’s food safety system is in urgent need of far-reaching reform.  Outbreaks of food-borne illness, she said, have come to threaten not only public health, but also the public’s confidence in industry and government.  She argued that an effective food safety system will require coherent, coordinated, and consistent effort at the federal level, and that to achieve this, Congress must update the statutes, enacted in the early 20th century, that empower agencies to implement food safety regulations.

In response to a question from an audience member, Tucker Foreman emphasized that performance-based standards must be tailored to a wide variety of diverse farming operations so that excessive burdens are not placed on small operators who generate only small risks.  She also suggested that perhaps food directly marketed from farms to consumers should be exempt from federal requirements.

Margaret Glavin, a former FDA official and now an independent consultant working on food safety policy issues, essentially agreed with Tucker Foreman, saying the “food safety system is in crisis,” and emphasizing the challenge global markets represent for domestic food safety.

Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, gave an overview of how their voluntary agreement in response to the 2006 E. Coli outbreak has been an effective prophylactic, increased consumer confidence, and allowed standards to evolve as new information becomes available.  He envisions a national program based on the model of the California LGMA.

In response to a question from an audience member, he maintained that the cost to beginning farmers of participating in LGMA is a cost inherent in the food business, a cost imposed by the market, not by any particular interest group.  In response to a question from Defenders of Wildlife on unintended negative impacts of LGMA on conservation programs, Horsfall responded that he is aware of the issue, and that LGMA is working to address it.

Deborah Bryanton, Executive Director of Food Safety and Consumer Protection at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, joined the meeting by phone to discuss Canada’s positive experience with a unified food safety agency, an institution formed in 1997.

Categories: Food Safety

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