President Obama has promised to strengthen and reorganize the nation’s food-safety system after declaring the government’s failure to inspect ninety-five percent of processing plants a “hazard to public health”. Obama has since announced the creation of a Food Safety Working Group, which includes the secretaries of agriculture and health, to generate coordination across federal agencies, advise him on which regulations and laws need to be changed, and ensure laws are enforced. Powerful members of Congress are additionally pushing to enact changes in the food-safety system.
Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, also announced cattle that cannot walk, also called “downer cattle”, will be banned from slaughter. This system allowed the cattle that passed a pre-slaughter inspection, but were later injured, to be sold into the food system if a food inspector deemed the meat safe. Last year, only about 1,000 cattle out of the 34 million that were slaughtered got into the food supply with the exceptions. This case-by-case system is now eliminated.
About a dozen federal agencies share the responsibilities of ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply. Critics and government investigators have said for years that this system needs major revisions. A debate on Capitol Hill has developed asking whether to boost food oversight at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or give these responsibilities to a single agency that would eventually compound the food-oversight duties of the other eleven agencies. Vilsack has seemed to support the idea of this joint agency to oversee everything, however President Obama’s position is unknown.
Last year the FDA only inspected 7,000 of the nearly 150,000 domestic food facilities and its oversight of foreign plants was even worse. For many years, experts have debated whether or not the FDA should attempt to increase the amount of inspections or rely on more detailed safety regulations and private auditors. Obama appears to believe government inspections should be increased. Public health experts estimate that every year about 76 million people in the U.S. become ill due to contaminated food; hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and about five thousand die.
Let us hope that this initiative is completed. Food safety has exteme importance beyond the most obvious reasons. It is also a matter of national security, and this should not be ignored. Moreover, we do not need any more ecoli or salmonella outbreaks, or worse. This initiative should not be relegated to a backburner, where the previous administration placed it.