With the incoming Bush administration taking shape, newly staffed agencies assigned to protecting the US food supply, namely the USDA, FDA and EPA, are setting budgets, prioritising goals and considering new and pending regulations.

Ann Veneman, Bush’s pick for secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), this week offered a blueprint of that agency’s budget. Noteworthy, but not surprising, is funding to expand overseas markets for US agricultural products and more research dollars focused on biotechnology.

Veneman, who served on the board of Monsanto subsidiary, Calgene, clearly supports biotechnology. However, the problem she faces is balancing a biotech industry anxious to move ahead with consumers who reject the technology or else favour a more cautious review. Indicating the kind of problems she can expect – it was revealed this week that corn seed intended for this year’s US corn crop was found to contain traces of Cry9c protein, the key component of AventisStarLink corn.

USDA’s proposed budget also sets aside money to fund 7,600 meat and poultry inspectors, “based on expected need for these services,” indicating that the Bush administration is bracing for continued meat industry-related problems.

It will be interesting to watch Veneman manoeuvre this regulatory mine field as well, especially in light of her choice of Dale Moore, previously a director at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, as USDA chief of staff.

What else is new?

Near the close of February, USDA filed its newly proposed Listeria control regulation in the Federal Register. The regulation, a response to 21 deaths and 100 illnesses attributed to contaminated hot dogs and deli meats two years ago, calls for performance standards and requires testing for Listeria bacteria on equipment or work areas in ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry plants.

Response from the meat industry was not enthusiastic. J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute (AMI), said USDA has put “the cart before the horse” by proposing the new regulation before finalising its risk assessment for the pathogen. He also complained that his industry was being singled out while other Listeria-risky food products were not subject to the new rule.

Meanwhile, over at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the new leadership of Christine Todd Whitman, another battle is brewing. On Wednesday, February 28, a coalition of environmental groups led by Robert Kennedy Jr., filed lawsuits claiming Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest US hog producer, has broken criminal and civil laws by wilfully ignoring environmental regulations.

“We know this problem represents a failure of government,” Kennedy said. “The groups that are supposed to be regulating these corporations are not doing their jobs, and often are in cahoots with the industry.”

Strong words, to say the least.

At the centre of the suit are proposed EPA regulations, issued in December 2000, that propose strict new controls for animal waste from feedlots, which the agency recognises as one of the biggest causes of water pollution.

The new requirements would apply to as many as 39,000 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across the US. Currently, only an estimated 2,500 large and small livestock operations have enforceable permits under the Clean Water Act. A CAFO is currently defined as having 1,000 or more cattle or comparable “animal units” of other livestock. However, EPA believes that smaller operations may also be CAFOs if they are a threat to water quality.

EPA has issued a 120-day comment period and has scheduled public meetings around the country on the proposal.

Of a less volatile nature, the FDA in early February, sent a warning letter to food companies telling them to refrain from implying health benefits from untested functional foods or novel ingredients.

In the letter, the FDA restated the requirements of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and reminded food makers of the legal requirements regarding health, nutrient and structure/function claims on their products. The action came in response to complaints from groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which accused food makers of misleading US consumers with false health claims. FDA promises tougher action if their warning goes unheeded.

Also from the FDA and label-related is continued unfavourable consumer reaction to last January’s ruling on GM food labelling, which requires only that food producers notify the agency before marketing a new GM food and that any labelling of the product is voluntary.

Based on its own research into consumer attitudes, the FDA this month issued a report that shows most US consumers want GM foods labelled.

With the comment period on this ruling open until March 13, and opposition becoming more vocal and organized, GM labelling remains an issue that will not disappear any time soon.

Another pending proposal soon to be back in the forefront is OSHA’s proposed ergonomic standards – a very contentious issue that remains in a temporary nether state as the food industry and other manufacturers prepare to battle OSHA and labour organisations to nullify the rule.

Also languishing is USDA’s proposal, submitted in January under Dan Glickman’s watch requiring meat and poultry manufacturers to disclose the fat, calorie and cholesterol content of their products.

Check back next month for updates and new developments.

By Pam Ahlberg

Pam can be reached by email at: pahlberg@bellatlantic.net