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Food Safety Working Group meets

by Bob Meyer

Article from

In an effort to improve food safety in the United States, the Obama Administration has created the Food Safety Working Group to come up with ideas to accomplish that goal. Chaired by Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the group met last week in Washington with representatives of the federal and state governments and the food industry. Wisconsin’s Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Rod Nilsestuen was invited to participate representing states who Nilsestuen says are the backbone of the food safety system. “State and local governments do 90 percent of the food safety regulatory work in the country.”

Nilsestuen says the move to reform the food safety system is gaining momentum, “All one has to say is peanut butter, spinach and melamine and we know what impact those have had.” While the major players are the Food & Drug Administration, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Centers for Disease Control, there are 13 federal agencies which have some role in food safety which Nilsestuen says highlights one of the challenges the group faces. The State Secretary points out there are more than 3,000 local agencies involved in food safety, “Which gives you an idea of the breadth and complexity of this issue.” Several bills are in the works in Congress but Nilsestuen says any reform of policy must include a way to better encompass and integrate state and local agencies as well. One key element to that end would be the establishment of a database which could be shared by the three federal agencies as well as local and state agencies.

The melamine contamination issue was a major point of discussion in that it proved to be a glaring example of how standards in other countries are not the same as ours yet we often accept their goods with only random sampling. Nilsestuen says there is no question there have not been enough resources directed at making sure the food coming into the United States meets the same standards as domestic foods. How to accomplish that is one of the big challenges, “It is very difficult for the federal government to put inspectors in all of the countries who export food into this country and it is also difficult to inspect it all at the port.” One possibility is to do what the European Union does, employ a third-party verification system.

One aspect of a food safety system is a national animal identification system which could be used to track down any disease outbreak. The Wisconsin Ag Secretary says he brought that up and was quickly told that was a different issue. “In Washington it seems there is a major desire not to mix those two topics.” He sees it as a strategic, political decision given the fact NAIS has become quite controversial so the Administration does not want food safety reform to become bogged-down with animal ID.


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