A food safety working group established by President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the government will try and boost the safety of some of the nation's most popular foods, announcing stricter rules for the production of eggs, poultry, beef, leafy greens, melons and tomatoes. The new standards are an effort to reduce instances of salmonella and E. coli contamination.
The group, headed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is also directing the Food and Drug Administration to help the food industry establish better tracing systems if there is an outbreak, so the origins of a disease can be quickly found. A new network to help the many agencies that regulate food safety communicate better will also be created.
Tougher standards, including stiffer penalties and increased inspections, are included in legislation approved by a House panel earlier this year.
The White House and Congress have turned their attention to the issue after a string of food safety breakdowns in recent years, from contaminated spinach in 2006 to salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes last year.
Earlier this year a massive salmonella outbreak in peanut products sickened hundreds, was suspected of causing nine deaths and led to one of the largest product recalls in U.S. history. In the past month, Nestle Toll House cookie dough and 380,000 pounds of beef produced by the JBS Swift Beef Co. of Greeley, Colo., have been recalled due illnesses caused by E. coli contamination.
In March, Obama said he would create a special advisory group to coordinate antiquated food safety laws and recommend ways to update them. The FDA does not have enough money or workers to conduct annual inspections at more than a fraction of the 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses in the country, Obama said.
Under the new rules:
-Egg and poultry producers will have to follow new standards designed to reduce salmonella contamination, including increased testing and refrigeration for eggs.
-The Food Safety Inspection Service, the Agriculture Department agency that inspects meat, will increase sampling of ground beef ingredients in an effort to better find E. coli contamination.
-The FDA will recommend ways that producers of leafy greens, melons and tomatoes can reduce disease strains, and require stricter standards in those industries within two years.
-The FDA and the Agriculture Department will create new positions to better oversee food safety. The FDA said Tuesday that Mike Taylor, a food safety expert and George Washington University professor, will serve as a senior adviser to the commissioner.
Consumer groups said the new rules were good first steps as Congress considers even stricter measures.
"We still urgently need to overhaul our badly outdated laws so that FDA has the tools and funds they need to inspect, prevent and detect food contamination," said Erik D. Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "FDA must be able to strongly enforce against food companies that import contaminated foods or hide test results showing contamination."
Vice President Joe Biden, who joined Vilsack and Sebelius for the announcement, said the administration's efforts to prevent disease are an important new approach.
"The focus on prevention is to have a completely different emphasis than we've had in the past," Biden said. "In the past we've focused on better reactions to food safety problems when they occur."
The Agriculture Department inspects meat and poultry, and shares inspections of eggs with the FDA. The FDA inspects most other foods, but at least 15 government agencies are a part of the food safety system.