Going for peanuts

by Erica Shaffer
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With a House committee holding yet another hearing last week to consider proposals to peel off the Food and Drug Administration’s food-inspection responsibilities into a separate agency, the meat industry’s trade organizations remain largely opposed to tinkering with the present system. The stance puts the groups in opposition to consumer organizations that want to see a new food-safety agency established to administer beefed up regulations.

In an email, American Meat Institute spokesman Dave Ray told MEATPOULTRY.com: "The real issue when looking at food-safety legislation and reform is not whether there is a [single food-safety agency] or multiple agencies, the issue is what do the reforms being proposed do to enhance the safety of our food. AMI reviews all food-safety proposals through the lens of food-safety enhancement through a science-based approach. We will apply that standard to all proposals in the legislative and regulatory process."

Jeremy Russell of the National Meat Association also wrote in email: "The association still opposes a single food agency for the simple reason that it has not yet been shown how such a massive transition would benefit the USDA/FSIS meat inspection program. In fact, the potential exists for the move to dilute the program's effectiveness. And that wouldn't benefit anyone, least of all the companies under FSIS inspection. Probably there are ways for the agencies to improve communications and food-inspection protocols, but a sweeping agency reorganization is likely to cause more problems than it could possibly solve."

Later, as the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D. – Calif.), met last week to hear testimony regarding food-safety agency reform, NMA issued the following statement: "The National Meat Association today articulated its position on any reinvention of the food-safety system in the United States: Reform should start with a comprehensive strategic approach."

"Most recent discussion of comprehensive food-safety reform has revolved around a single food safety agency. While oversight responsibility is important, it is secondary to the development of an effective new food safety system," said NMA CEO Barry Carpenter. "There are five essential components to building a more effective system. A food-safety system should be designed using: Current science, assessments of risk and prioritization of resources, process controls, uniform standards and continuous improvements. These essential components form a roadmap towards crafting an effective food-safety system that can be successfully implemented throughout the food chain.

"It’s important to concentrate on effective system design. If the systems themselves are ineffective, no new oversight scheme can make them effective. The same can be said for throwing more money at them. First and foremost, we need something that works,’" Carpenter said.

In the wake of last month’s peanut butter Salmonella debacle, in which pathogen-contaminated peanut butter was shipped from a processing plant in Georgia despite the plant’s inspection oversight by FDA, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) proposed that all of the food-inspection responsibilities of FDA, which cover virtually all of the foods produced and processed in the United States except for meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, be splintered off the present agency, where they are lumped with regulation of the pharmaceutical and medical-devices industries, into a new food-only agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. The proposal arrived in an atmosphere that seems more politically conducive than in the past to combining FDA’s food-inspection responsibilities with USDA’s inspection authority for meat and poultry into a single "super food agency."

Commenting on the DeLauro proposal specifically, Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, the consumer watchdog organization that was founded in the aftermath of the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, told MEATPOULTRY.com that she likes what she sees. "We think it’s a great idea" to split off food inspection from FDA’s other responsibilities, she said. "Food plays third fiddle at FDA behind drugs and medical devices. You’re not going to get effective food inspection in that situation," she added.

She said that what’s particularly appealing to S.T.O.P. about the DeLauro proposal is that while it stops short of creating a continuous inspection program like USDA’s for meat and poultry, it sets up inspection frequency at food plants based on risk. "It’s so far superior to what FDA is doing now," she said. "Not only that, but the DeLauro plan puts a new commissioner in charge of just food inspection, which really needs commissioner-level authority on its own."

She admitted that despite the public’s current mood for greater food-inspection oversight and a new administration in Washington, D.C., that is friendlier than the previous administration to expanded regulatory authority, she’s not terribly optimistic that the DeLauro proposal or any other major overhaul of FDA and USDA food inspection will actually make it into law. "For political reasons, there’s some pushback going on on the House side, a turf war over which committee is going to have oversight of a new food agency. It’s really unfortunate," she told MEATPOULTRY.com. "Let’s just do what’s best for the public, you know? I’ll be happily surprised, though, if the reform actually happens."

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