Two years into its term, the Obama administration gets a solid grade of B for overall food safety from a range of interest groups that includes consumer advocates, growers, processors, and manufacturers. But consensus is lacking on specific efforts, including conducting inspections, because different groups are impacted very differently by these activities. For instance, while consumers applaud more frequent testing of fresh produce, growers complain that the process takes too long and can hold up and even spoil shipments.
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Some believe that the grades should be given in context, relative to how they believe the Bush administration performed. “You have to grade the Obama administration on the curve,” said David W. Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “You have to look at what the previous administration did that worsened the situation for food safety and balance what the Obama administration had to do to dig their way out of it,” Plunkett told Food Quality magazine.
Plunkett and other experts gave their assessments on a range of food safety issues, including inspections, funding for food science research, drafting and issuing of regulations, passage of federal legislation, and outreach to industry. Not everyone had opinions on every issue, and some were willing to grant the administration the benefit of the doubt when results were inconclusive. Here, then, is how the Obama administration scored on food safety at the two-year mark.
Despite their differences, nearly every group gives the administration high marks for enactment of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (PL 111-353). The measure, signed in January, is the first major overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws in more than seven decades. “Getting that bill done was a huge accomplishment,” said Sandra Eskin, project director of the Food Safety Campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It takes a village to pass a piece of legislation like that,” she told Food Quality.
The new law, which had been several years in the making, gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad new powers to mitigate food safety problems by using science- and risk-based approaches to monitoring the nation’s food supply (see “Highlights of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” p. 16). Whether the FDA will receive the funds needed to implement the legislation is questionable, however; some republicans in the House of Representatives have threatened to withhold some or all of the $1.4 billion in appropriations that will be necessary over the next five years.
“This landmark legislation provides FDA with the resources and authorities the agency needs to help strengthen our nation’s food safety system by making prevention the focus of our food safety strategies,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in a statement that followed the president’s signature.
But not everyone was as pleased. The American Farm Bureau “strongly opposes efforts to eliminate years of food safety expertise by creating a new, single food safety regulator. Rather than streamlining authorities, the result would be less organization, more energy expended in transition than inspections, and the cumulative loss of valuable technical knowledge,” the bureau warned on its website.
Also troubled was the United Fresh Produce Association, which withdrew its long-standing support for the food safety bill last November after Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) added an amendment providing full or partial exemptions to smaller farms and processing facilities deemed to be low risk. Small businesses and producers had sought the exemptions, and the compromise helped to ensure the bill’s passage in Congress. Calling the amendment a “profound error,” Robert Guenther, United Fresh’s senior vice president of public policy, said “the administration had a responsibility to step in and advocate for the things they liked and disliked. Instead, they sat on the sidelines.”