MOST IDEAS OF FOOD-SAFETY PANEL LAUDED

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Food industry officials generally embraced a blue-ribbon panel's recommendations for revamping federal food-safety programs around "a science-based approach," but bristled at the call for a national safe-food czar to coordinate the effort."While we support the position that there should be a science-based approach to identifying the causes of food-borne illnesses, there is a real

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Food industry officials generally embraced a blue-ribbon panel's recommendations for revamping federal food-safety programs around "a science-based approach," but bristled at the call for a national safe-food czar to coordinate the effort.

"While we support the position that there should be a science-based approach to identifying the causes of food-borne illnesses, there is a real concern that naming a single person, or creating a new agency, to coordinate all food safety could mean you lose the very expertise needed to do this and create a political hot potato," said Thomas Wenning, the National Grocers Association's senior vice president and general counsel.

Wenning, like officials with other retail and food-trade groups, emphasized that the food czar aside, the NGA applauded most of the recommendations for improving the nation's food-safety systems, issued last week by the National Research Council.

The council, an agency within the National Academy of Sciences here, was charged by Congress last year with evaluating the efficacy of federal food-safety enforcement and regulations and making recommendations for improvements.

The 194-page report concluded that the U.S. food supply is the world's safest, but said improvements are needed to reduce food-borne illness, which the panel said causes about 9,000 American deaths and 81 million cases of illness annually.

The panel said some of these problems could be caused by the "fragmented" way food safety is handled by a dozen federal agencies, although primarily by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with authority over meat and poultry, and the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates other foods.

To remedy this situation, the report states: "Congress should establish a unified, central framework for managing food-safety programs, headed by one official with control of resources for all federal food-safety activities.

"This person," it continued, "would have responsibility for management of food-borne disease outbreaks, setting standards for food safety, inspection, monitoring, disease surveillance, risk assessment, regulation enforcement, research and education."

The report said that many panel members favor the creation of a new federal regulatory agency akin to the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce and coordinate all food-safety activities, but noted that some other members believe it would be better to create some type of coordinating council.

Bureaucratic issues aside, the report recommended an expanded use of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point systems to ensure the safety of both fresh and processed foods. "At a minimum," it stated, "Congress should no longer require inspection of each animal carcass."

There was accord among food retail and commodity trade groups -- allied as a task force -- that greater reliance on HACCP should be a part of any plan to revamp the nation's food-safety system. The task force included 18 food-industry trade groups, such as the Food Marketing Institute, American Frozen Food Institute, Food Distributors International, the NGA and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

A National Broiler Council spokesman noted implementation of HACCP in poultry-processing plants has cut the incidence of salmonella on birds from 20% in 1996 to 9% this year, and he particularly applauded a recommendation that federal inspectors no longer be required to inspect each bird carcass or meat animal.

Privately, some industry officials said they favored a related recommendation -- that risk-benefit analysis be built into inspection and other food-safety systems -- but questioned whether this could be achieved since it would require the repeal of the 1958 Delaney Amendment prohibiting the addition to food of any substance that is known to cause cancer.

The czar concept appeared to garner no support. "It would create another layer of decision-making in an already-bureaucratized system," said Kelly Johnston, the National Food Processors Association's executive vice president. A GMA spokeswoman said, "The emphasis should be on the science behind food safety and not how the deck chairs in the bureaucracy are arranged."

Several industry observers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it may be next-to-impossible to create a food czar position given what are likely to be intense turf battles in Congress. Such opposition quickly throttled proposals by former presidents Carter and Reagan to create super food and trade agencies, respectively.

The panel's recommendations did raise discord among some food groups. John Aguirre, a United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association vice president, said that for the panel "to state that consumers' reliance on minimally processed fruits and vegetables places new stresses on the system is inflammatory and unjustified. Outbreaks associated with minimally processed produce are extremely rare -- less than 1%. And, of the over 400 produce commodities available to consumers, only a few have been implicated in outbreaks."

A National Broiler Council spokesman said it agreed that the U.S. needed to do a better job monitoring imported fruits and vegetables for food-borne illness, which he said has caused several major food-borne disease outbreaks in the United States.

An American Meat Institute spokeswoman, meanwhile, said the group does not want any federal agency consolidation or other major program overhauls to occur in the near future. "If the food inspection system were to restructure fundamentally at this time it would be very disruptive because we are implementing the most dramatic changes to the meat and poultry system in more than a century and we're halfway through this process," the spokeswoman said.

"Because of the heavy presence of inspectors [today] they really are calling for a culture change; they're asking inspectors used to spotting problems [on the line] to monitor industry actions to prevent problems," she added.