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Stars Aligned for Food Safety Progress in Washington

Stars Aligned for Food Safety Progress in Washington

The food safety train is finally moving in Washington.

A flurry of developments this month has created optimism that real progress is within reach following a series of major food crises.

— President Obama named Margaret A. Hamburg as the new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and Joshua Sharfstein as deputy commissioner, moves that were generally applauded by the food industry.

— The president unveiled a plan to form a Food Safety Working Group to concentrate on changing food safety laws and revealed he would seek $1 billion for more food safety inspectors and upgrades of testing laboratories.

— Food safety bills aimed at bolstering the FDA's recall authority and enhancing preventive measures have begun to gain traction in the House and Senate.

The president's FDA appointments are aimed at boosting confidence after high-profile safety crises, while the formation of the working group shows the administration plans to build communication and cooperation across multiple agencies. The $1 billion investment for inspections and testing is certainly a step in the right direction, because it represents a much bigger commitment than in the past.

On the congressional front, Food Marketing Institute is putting its efforts behind four main principles contained in House and Senate bills, including the need to give the FDA mandatory recall authority if voluntary measures don't do the trick, said Jennifer Hatcher, FMI group vice president, government relations. Other principles FMI is pushing include enhancement of traceability efforts, the importance of prevention-oriented plans for manufacturing facilities, and the need for accredited third-party certification programs.

A lot has to happen for major food safety legislation to sweep through an overloaded Congress this year. Given that reality, it seems smart that FMI is narrowing its focus to a few core principles rather than seeking too broad an agenda. Food retailers and others in the industry are supporting the effort through testimony to congressional committees, including recent testimony by Michael Ambrosio, vice president of quality assurance at Wakefern Food Corp., about the impact of food recalls on a distributor.

The need for collaboration among all parties — industry and government in particular — has never been greater. Many want a stronger government role, but that is only part of the solution. Government can't possibly oversee the activities of hundreds of thousands of food facilities worldwide. These operations need to do a better job of policing themselves through good food safety practices aimed at prevention, as Hatcher emphasized.

President Obama has signaled that he understands the need for quick and comprehensive action. Here's how he put it recently: “There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and don't cause us harm.”

I would amend that slightly, by saying there are certain things only a government can do in partnership with others, including industry.

Without that collaboration, the food safety train won't get very far.