The Bush administration reached its first-100-days mark this past month. Consensus among most is that the new administration is on track, though not yet thoroughly tested. Specific to food issues, performance reviews were mixed.

Rhona Applebaum, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Food Processors Association, called the Bush administration ”a work in progress.”

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, was more generous, saying that the first 100 days of the Bush administration has been better than the first 100 days of the Clinton administration.

Both comments refer to a USDA decision made in early April which at first favoured the meat industry, then flip flopped. On April 4, it was reported that USDA officials who oversee school meat purchases decided that the testing and zero-tolerance standard for salmonella was neither effective nor necessary. Ordered last June by the Clinton administration, meat processors had complained the tests were burdensome and not scientific.

However, one day later, following swift and loud opposition from consumer groups and a few Democratic senators, USDA secretary Ann Veneman announced that she would leave the testing procedure in place.

The incident, embarrassing for all concerned, brought about promises of better policy communication and coordination between the agencies in the future.

Other regulatory news

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April was at the centre of two contentious food-related issues. The first is a report the agency has prepared that shows that the consumption of animal fat and dairy products containing trace amounts of dioxin can cause cancer in humans.

The dioxin risk assessment, originally published in 1994, has drawn intense opposition from industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen’s and Beef Association.

The EPA’s issuance of a final report could result in federal and state regulations costly to chemical manufacturers and damaging to the beleaguered beef industry.

EPA scientists and officials have said they are confident of the report’s findings, and are urging EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to issue it in final form this summer.

Also under review at the EPA is a recent filing from Aventis CropScience, the maker of StarLink corn, asking the agency to allow trace amounts of the GM corn in food. Research submitted as part of the filing has shown that potential exposure to StarLink in processed foods “is significantly lower” than previously estimated. Aventis is asking the EPA to set a maximum level for the biotech grain of 20 parts per billion, the equivalent of one StarLink kernel in every 800 kernels of corn.

The EPA said that Aventis’ new data seem to confirm its belief that processing of corn into oil, syrup, alcohol and starch through a wet-milling process effectively eliminates the StarLink protein from finished foods. Earlier tests involving dry-milling to produce flour were not as effective in eliminating the Cry9C protein, the EPA said.

The agency, which is still awaiting results of an investigation into complaints of people who claim to have been sickened by products containing the GM corn, said it would “carefully evaluate” the new research.

Meanwhile, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has announced that it will proceed with a proposal, put forth at the end of the Clinton administration, requiring ground meat to carry nutrition labels similar to those on boxes and cans of processed foods.

In January, the FSIS proposed this change in accordance with current regulations governing compliance with nutrition labelling after voluntary participation fell below a 60 percent threshold in October 1999.

The department has extended a public comment period until July 18.

A little more than a month after Congress defeated the Clinton administration’s proposed ergonomics standards, Bush’s new labor secretary Elaine Chao was called before Senator Arlen Specter’s Appropriations Subcommittee on April 26 to testify on her agency’s future action plans on workplace safety.

Outlining her agency’s new ergonomics principles, Chao said a new approach is required that is “based on cooperation and prevention, rather than the antiquated, adversarial approach of years past.” She said that OSHA favoured preventing injury through compliance and cooperation with businesses rather than “relying on command and control regulation.”

Chao also urged lawmakers not to set an artificial deadline for a final standard, claiming that the unreasonably short period of time OSHA had been given to complete the previous standard contributed to its demise.

Food Agency Appointments

Mary Waters, senior director for ConAgra Foods, has been named USDA assistant secretary for congressional relations. Farm scientist Joseph Jen has been named USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics.

Key food agency positions still unfilled include USDA undersecretary for food safety and administrator for FDA.

Check back next month for updates and new developments.

By Pam Ahlberg

Pam can be reached by email at: