Food safety rollback?

by Bernard Shire
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WASHINGTON – With the new Donald Trump Administration in office only a few weeks, there don’t seem to be any signs that the new president, his secretary of agriculture, the administrator of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), or the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have hatched any major plans to roll back food safety or meat and poultry inspection.

Of course, there’s been a lot of speculation about what President Trump might do, especially in the wake of the Obama Administration. Some of this spec­ulation has been fueled by comments made by the new president himself, hinting darkly about rollbacks of regulatory overload, comments about reining in “the FDA food police,” and other possible actions.

However, the safety of the food that Americans eat seems to be something that the parties involved seem to agree on for the most part, whether we’re talking about the food processing industry, government regulators, or the consumers who buy the food.

Of course, there are differing views about how food should be made safe, as well as disagreements about the best way to get to that food safety goal. But at least everyone agrees that the safety of American food is the goal. So despite speculation that Donald Trump’s unorthodox approach to dealing with public issues points toward a massive shakeup in food inspection, or how the safety of American food is assured, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that’s going to happen — at least so far. Fueling this speculation is the move by the FDA toward being a tougher food safety regulatory agency.

For a long time, the FDA was the weak sister of the two food safety and regulatory agencies. Inspection’s been vastly different, with USDA in poultry and meat plants every day, and FDA in its regulated plants and companies on a much less frequent basis. But more recently, there have been massive changes in the FDA regulatory structure, with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, and the regulations implementing the act, which beef up FDA food inspection.

But analysts in the food industry, as well as others in the industry and government, say it seems highly unlikely that this major law and regulations will be stripped away by the new administration. This restructuring of the food safety regulatory plan for a large part of the food industry in the US has great support in the industry, in Congress and among American consumers.

One change already taking place was the US Dept. of Justice involvement in enforcement of food recalls under FDA. Another direction regulatory agencies are moving in is the use of whole genome sequencing by both USDA and FDA. They’re using this process to find foodborne pathogens and deal with them more efficiently before they lead to major outbreaks of illness.

On the FSIS side, many priorities are already underway, including the revision to poultry inspection to make it more science based; controlling Salmonella in poultry and meat products; the discussion about making Salmonella an adulterant in ground beef meant for grinding; the pressure on retailers to control Listeria in delis; and efforts to stop or cut back the increasing occurrences of foreign contamination of meat and poultry products. None of these priorities seem subject to cutback or change by a decreasing regulatory emphasis on food safety.

Traditionally, the agriculture committees in the House and Senate seem to operate on a more bipartisan basis than many other committees in Congress, possibly because they spend at least some of their time on food safety. It’s hard to see these committees or the leadership of USDA or FDA changing course in this area.

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