The Obama administration has unveiled a series of measures designed to toughen food safety standards and strengthen the enforcement powers of regulatory bodies in the US.

Unveiling the proposals of the Food Safety Working Group, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Vice President Joe Biden said that “there are few responsibilities more basic” than ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply.
“Our food safety system must be updated – one in four people get sick every year due to food-borne illness, and children and the elderly are more at risk,” he emphasised.

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.

The federal government will establish a command system to ensure rapid response to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses as well as developing industry guidelines to help the government track contaminated products, the White House panel said.

However, the focus of food regulation policy has shifted somewhat from a reactive containment policy to also encompass the prevention of such outbreaks.

The Food and Drug Administration said that it aims to reduce salmonella infections from the consumption of raw or undercooked eggs by 60% from the current level of 79,000 illnesses a year. 

This can be achieved by requiring egg producers to test their facilities for salmonella and only buy chicks from farmers who monitor for the pathogen, the FDA suggested.

The FDA is also developing voluntary initiatives to reduce E. coli in melons, tomatoes and leafy greens.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture revealed that it is developing standards to reduce salmonella in poultry and E. coli in beef.

The White House proposals come in addition to last month’s approval from the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee of a bipartisan measure that would give the FDA additional funding and the authority to inspect food facilities and issue recalls.

The move has been broadly welcomed by the food industry.

“These new rules in combination with pending legislation in the House and Senate will lay a new foundation for our food safety system by making prevention of contamination the focus of our food safety strategies,” Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said.

However, while consumer groups have welcomed the overall policy direction, there is a concern that concrete proposals are a little thin on the ground.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, described the news as “a good beginning for the Obama Administration”.

However, she added: “It faces many tests of how quickly the administration can fix a weakened federal food safety structure… Congress must pass the Food Safety Enhancement Act to give the FDA the statutory foundation needed as well as increased financial resources to restore Americans’ confidence in the safety of our food supply.”