According to the Labor Department, U.S. payrolls grew by 103,000 workers in December. While the expansion was well below the expectations of many analysts, it pushed the nation's unemployment rate down to 9.4 percent from 9.8 percent.
Testifying to the Senate Budget Committee Friday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke predicted the economy would strengthen in 2011. But he said the Fed's $600 billion Treasury bond-buying program, known as Quantitative Easing 2, needs to continue because it will take years for unemployment to drop to more normal levels.
Earlier in the week, the Commerce Department reported factory orders rose 0.7 percent in November, as U.S. business responded to strong demand for household appliances, computers, and furniture. Excluding the volatile transportation sector, orders actually increased by 2.4 percent, marking the largest gain in eight months.
But that wasn't enough to keep the bears in hibernation on Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrials settled Friday with a loss of 20 points.
Hoping to breathe new life into the U.S. economy, President Obama this week appointed Gene Sperling as his top economic advisor. Sperling, who also served in the same capacity in the Clinton Administration, will have to figure out how to put Americans back to work without running up the national debt. And the president faces new challenges in the days ahead selling his economic vision to a now-divided Congress.
This week, though, the president signed a $1.4 billion overhaul of the nation's food safety system.
Much of the bill's $1.4 billion cost is attributable to hiring about 2,000 new FDA inspectors. That could prove to be a sound investment since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates foodborne illnesses cost the nation $152 billion annually.
President Obama made improving food safety a priority shortly after taking office in 2009 in response to several deadly outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning in peanuts, eggs and produce over the past few years.
Most major food companies are backing the bill. Recent outbreaks blamed on tainted spinach, and other foods, have hurt the industries financially as consumers reacted to recalls and, in some cases, stopped buying their products.
The CDC recently estimated that 48 million people - or one in six Americans - are sickened every year by a foodborne illness. Of that, 180,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
Some Republican lawmakers are complaining that the measure is too expensive and are threatening to stop its funding. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, a lead sponsor of the bill, acknowledged the tough spending decisions that will have to be made, but he said in a statement, "Fiscal responsibility does not necessitate abandoning or neglecting the need of American consumers for safe food."
The food safety law also:
Imposes new safety regulations on producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables, and
Requires processors to prepare food safety plans detailing steps they are taking to keep food safe at different stages of production. The FDA would use the information to trace recalled foods.
The new law exempts meat, poultry and processed eggs, since they are regulated by the Agriculture Department. Also exempt are some small businesses, which had complained that the new requirements could force them into bankruptcy.