DIFFERENCES AIRED ON FOOD-SAFETY ISSUES

WASHINGTON -- Everyone may want safe apples, but while industry groups worry about upsetting the applecart that carries existing food-safety policy, consumer groups want a new cart altogether.At a meeting held by a National Academy of Sciences committee here, testimony from both sides put the issue in sharp relief. The NAS meeting was convened in response to a congressional request that the NAS consider

WASHINGTON -- Everyone may want safe apples, but while industry groups worry about upsetting the applecart that carries existing food-safety policy, consumer groups want a new cart altogether.

At a meeting held by a National Academy of Sciences committee here, testimony from both sides put the issue in sharp relief. The NAS meeting was convened in response to a congressional request that the NAS consider ways to improve food safety.

In testimony, industry groups pushed for more focus and cooperation between exist

ing federal agencies, while consumer groups stressed the need for a new agency devoted solely to food safety. The NAS is expected to release its findings on the matter by Aug. 15.

"Congress and the administration must resist knee-jerk reactions to consumer agitator groups calling for costly, over-reaching legislation that might make us feel good, but in reality does nothing to stop or study foodborne illness," said Stephen Ziller, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America here.

Ziller's counterpart at the National Food Processors Association, also here, agreed. "In short," said Rhona Applebaum, the NFPA's executive vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, "there needs to be a single scientifically based federal food-safety policy, rather than a focus on creating a single food-safety program."

The Public Voice for Food and Health Policy argued, however, that a new agency devoted exclusively to food safety is just what is needed to focus on foods that pose the greatest risk as well as to coordinate research. A new agency would also provide a single approval process for new food-safety technologies, said Robert Hahn, director of legal affairs for Public Voice.

"At the very least," Hahn said, "jurisdiction for any single food product should not be divided between different agencies, as is currently the case for eggs."

Hahn also said that while many aspects of the nation's food-safety programs work well, others need help. That includes increasing regulation of farming and production, transportation and retail systems, as well as that of imports.

Also, said Hahn, "both FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] lack authority to mandate recall of contaminated food, and both lack authority to assess civil fines for violations of food-safety laws." That should change, he said.

In later testimony, Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of scientific and technical services for the Food Marketing Institute here, pointed out that the retail industry has already established a four-pronged approach to food safety that begins with supplier specifications.

"At retail, unless the product is cooked, we have very limited means for making the food safer," she said. "Our role is to keep it as safe as when it arrives to the store."

In addition, Hollingsworth said, the FMI is now stressing employee health and hygiene as well as a new store operations initiative called the "Total Food Safety Management Program," which will eventually design, test and pilot a model food-safety program.

Hollingsworth also recounted the fact that the supermarket industry has joined with the government on a consumer-education program, called "Fight Bac," to help the fight against foodborne illness in the home.

"The retail food industry is accustomed to dealing with many regulatory entities at the federal, state and local level," Hollingsworth said. "We have found that this can best be accomplished if authorities and responsibilities are integrated and coordinated."

And equally important, she said, is the need to speak about one strategic plan.

Said Hollingsworth, "There must be agreement among the regulators if there is to be compliance by the regulated."