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Salmonella outbreak may spur U. S. food safety

The latest U. S. salmonella outbreak could spur food safety reform in the U. S. Congress, but the process will be slow and consumers will remain at risk until the shattered regulatory regime can be fixed.

“Congress is poised to take early action on food safety legislation,” said Caroline Smith DeWall, a director of food safety at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The peanut butter-linked salmonella outbreak “should create the incentive for Congress to act quickly to address the nation’s food safety problems,” she said.

The most popular reform proposals focus on giving the Food and Drug Administration more power and financial resources to be proactive; appointing an official full time to food safety; and having companies more involved in product safety.

Legislative ideas also have included combining 15 U. S. agencies that handle food safety into a single entity.

An estimated 76 million people in the U. S. get sick every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Top U. S. food companies, worried that more food scares may turn away customers and erode confidence in the food supply and FDA, have pushed for stronger food safety legislation.

“There is a broad, bipartisan consensus… that has earned the support of consumer and industry groups,” said Scott Faber, a vice-president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents leading companies in the food industry.

“The groundwork has been laid for swift passage of food safety legislation,” he said.

A few members of Congress, such as Connecticut Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, have advocated major changes.

Recall authority

DeLauro, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, plans to reintroduce legislation to give FDA mandatory recall authority, implement traceability requirements and make a separate agency for food safety responsibilities within the Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA is part of HHS.

She said “prospects are better” for a bill to pass this year.

“What we need to do is begin to put the pieces in place. It will not happen overnight,” said DeLauro. “We have seen such a tremendous collapsing of our food safety abilities that I think people are looking to make sure that the future is different.”

Eight deaths may be linked to the latest salmonella outbreak involving peanut butter, and more than 500 people have become ill in the latest mysterious infection to rock the U. S. food industry.

The salmonella outbreak, which began in September, had all the hallmarks of past scares involving peppers, pot pies, spinach and another case of peanut butter.

Health authorities warned consumers in mid-January to lay off the peanut butter, and companies such as General Mills and Kellogg recalled cookies, pet food and other products.

The salmonella has been traced to a Georgia supplier of peanut butter products to manufacturers and institutions. The outbreak sparked outrage from consumer groups and prompted lawmakers to call for a modernized food safety system focusing more on prevention rather than reaction.

“Buried in bureaucracy”

The FDA, responsible for protecting 80 per cent of the food supply, has been criticized for being too passive – particularly in handling the surge in imports and growing demand for fresh produce.

“There is a structure at FDA that really makes the food safety program fragmented and sort of buried in bureaucracy and not able to lead the transformation that Congress is about to order it to lead,” said Michael Taylor, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.

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