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July 13, 2009

COMMENT: White House food safety move lacks substance

While any move to improve US food safety will likely be welcomed by consumers and the industry alike, Katy Humphries suggests that last week’s announcement from the White House does not go far enough to tackle some of the more pressing challenges facing the sector.

While any move to improve US food safety will likely be welcomed by consumers and the industry alike, Katy Humphries suggests that last week’s announcement from the White House does not go far enough to tackle some of the more pressing challenges facing the sector.

“There are few responsibilities more basic or more important for the government than making sure the food our families eat is safe,” Vice President Joe Biden told us last week, as he unveiled the Obama administration’s answer to the problem of US food safety.

The White House said it is implementing “a new public health-focused approach to food safety”, which is based on three core principles – prioritising prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement and improving response and recovery.

The reforms come in response to a series of high-profile outbreaks of food borne illnesses, including salmonella in cookie dough, peanut butter and spinach as well as E. coli in beef products.

“We owe it to the American people to deliver on President Obama’s bold promise to greatly enhance our food safety system, moving our approach into the 21st century, employing the best surveillance techniques available and ensuring that we are doing all we can to prevent illness before it occurs,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters.

While these principles are laudable – rhetoric aside – those expecting radical movement on food safety will have been disappointed by the outcome of the President’s Working Group on Food Safety.

The White House’s plans focused on a relatively small section of the food industry, targeting reduced salmonella in eggs, poultry and produce, such as leafy greens, tomatoes and melons.

Just how different the proposals are from existing practice seems up for debate. As Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, noted: “Egg farmers have practiced the requirements of the new regulations for many years.”

There was also a notable lack of detail on exactly how instances of salmonella contamination would be reduced. For example, rather than outlining a specific strategy on how to tackle salmonella in produce, the FDA will now produce yet another “draft guidance” on produce safety and will, in two years, “work to require adoption of these approaches.”

The Food Safety Working Group also highlighted E. coli in beef – a pertinent issue given the ongoing JBS Swift recall.

According the press release, there is going to be “stepped up enforcement in beef facilities,” including “ issuing improved instructions to [inspectors]…to find this pathogen, focusing largely on the components that go into making ground beef.”

However, the suggestion that ‘better instructions’ and an incremental – and statistically insignificant – increase in testing will do little to tighten the safety net has already placed a question mark over how effective this measure will be.

While US food industry bodies have opposed measures that they claim would increase production costs, the need for improved food safety is clear and the likes of the Grocery Manufacturers Association have thrown their weight behind calls for reform.

As if to underscore the need to improve US food safety, three high profile US recalls continued to make headlines last week.

JBS Swift’s beef recall was once again expanded; Nestle said that it would begin “limited production” at its Danville facility after inspectors failed to detect salmonella there, despite its presence in a cookie dough sample produced at the site; and General Mills was forced to recall its Nature Valley Nut Lovers Granola Nut Clusters with pecans when nuts supplied to the cereal giant tested positive for salmonella.

While the cost of improved US food safety might weigh on the industry – particularly smaller manufacturers – in the short term, the cost of failing to act will be far greater in the long term. Aside from the expense of recalling products, with one in four US consumers falling ill due to food borne pathogen’s every year, the impact this will have on consumer confidence is obvious.

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