House Ag Committee Reviewing Food Safety

Federal food safety system being scrutinized by ag panel.

With recent food recalls of peanuts and pistachios, food safety has been a hot topic for the past couple of months. The full House Agriculture Committee is holding a hearing Thursday morning to review the food safety system. Among those who will testify are Chandler Keys of JBS; John Handlin of SUPERVALU, Inc.; Elsa Murano of Texas A&M University; and Carol Tucker-Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America.

During his testimony before the House Ag Subcommittee on Appropriations on Tuesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke about food safety and its place in the Administration's budget plan.

"We are committed to modernizing the food system, focusing on preventing rather than mitigating the consequences of food-borne illness," Vilsack said. "Food-borne illness affects everyone from the consumer back down to the producer and taxes our health care system far more than it should. Our budget proposal for 2010 includes additional resources to improve food safety inspection and assessment and to enhance the ability to determine food safety risks."

Vilsack expressed interest in meeting with members of Congress to explore ideas on improving the food safety system. At a press conference later Tuesday, he also spoke about efforts being made in the Executive branch.

"The President has indicated a real concern about our food safety system by the establishment of a working group that the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services will co-chair," Vilsack said. "There have been staff meetings already, not withstanding the fact that the FDA commissioner and Health and Human Service secretary have not been confirmed, although they have been nominated."

Vilsack says when those individuals are confirmed he intends to sit down with them and talk about next steps in terms of the working group. He also says they need to discuss the philosophy of food safety, how FDA and USDA can better coordinate their activities related to food, and if they have sufficient authority to take steps to protect citizens in the event there is a problem.

"There probably will be a conversation about organizational structure but I don't think you get to that conversation until you've addressed more of the fundamentals of whatever the system is," Vilsack said. "There was a discussion during the hearing on a risk-based process, there's still a lot of work that has to be done in order for us to know more about how that would work and if it would work. We've certainly got some prototypes now at USDA and we're learning everyday from the utilization of those prototypes. There is a lot of work that has to be done and the President is expecting reports from this working group every 90 days, so I think there is an expectation that we get down to work fairly quickly."

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