U.S. Sen. Harkin: Statement on The Pew Charitable Trusts Forum on Food Safety

  • September 03, 2009

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The office of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin issued the following news release:

“We are all grateful to Pew Charitable Trusts for sponsoring this important forum. I have worked with Pew for so many years on so many issues, and I can tell you that this organization is a true national treasure. Washington is a place of more heat than light. We count on Pew as a major source of light — and enlightenment. And they never let us down.

“It is also very appropriate that we are addressing the issue of food safety, as September is National Food Safety Education Month.

“This afternoon, I have listened with great interest to our panelists. You have made a compelling case for reform. And it is clear to me that, yes, Congress has a very full health agenda in the months ahead – first and foremost, passing comprehensive health reform – but we also need to give priority attention to food safety reform.

“This is an urgent matter. We can't put it off.

“Americans enjoy basically safe and wholesome food. But, let's be honest: It can be safer and it must be safer. There is shared interest all through food systems to do much better.

“As many of you know, I chaired a hearing on food safety in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry back in February. It followed an illness outbreak related to peanut products, and it highlighted some major problems in our food safety system. For over a decade now, I have urged FDA and USDA to strengthen federal food safety, and I have introduced several reform bills. In addition, I have been working closely with FDA to explore more effective ways of safeguarding America's food supply.

“The Obama administration has made food safety reform a major domestic priority. In March, the President created the Food Safety Working Group to make recommendations for bringing the food safety system into the 21st Century.

“Several areas of agreement have emerged from all these deliberations.

“We agree that all food needs to be safe, and an essential mean to this end is to emphasize preventive control measures.

“We also agree that regulations should be effective, but not excessively burdensome.

“Additionally, we agree on the need to respond faster to outbreaks when they do occur. And we need to have effective surveillance enforcement to ensure that foods involved in an outbreak do not make it to consumers.

“To accomplish all of these things, we need to modernize food safety programs at FDA. We must reform the system comprehensively.

“Bear in mind that, at the beginning of the 20th Century, Americans ate much simpler fare – and, most of the time, they prepared meals from basic ingredients in their own homes with their own hands.

“Today, our meals have grown more complex, with much more varied ingredients and diverse methods of preparation. By the time raw agricultural products find their way to our dinner plates, multiple intermediate steps and processes have taken place. Food ingredients typically travel thousands of miles from farms to factories to fork and they are intermingled and mixed together along the way.

“We love today's broader selection of fresh foods available year-round. But this brings with it major new food safety challenges. For instance, we rely more on foods imported from countries with less rigorous inspection rates and different production standards and conditions than our own.

“Yet despite dramatic changes in our tastes, as well as in methods of production and distribution, our food safety laws have not changed. The U.S. regulatory system has failed to incorporate the latest scientific research on ways to make and keep food safe. Another shortcoming: Food safety agencies are still encumbered by methods that often allocate disproportionate resources to activities that do little to make our food safer.

“OK, so what do we need to do?

“We need improved processes to prevent the contamination of foods – methods to provide safe food to consumers. To achieve this, more testing and better methods of tracking food can be utilized to verify that the processes are working.

“Thirty years ago, the nation had 70,000 food processors and the FDA inspectors made only 35,000 visits a year to cover these processors. Even that level of oversight was inadequate. But, today, nearly a full decade into the 21st century, we have 150,000 food processors, twice as many plants, and the problem has grown far worse. Today FDA inspectors make 6,700 visits each year, only one-fifth as many visits as was the case three decades ago.

“As I have observed many times, to say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit. Food safety in America has too often become a hit-or-miss gamble, with parents obliged to roll the dice when it comes to the safety of their kids' food. That is both frightening and unacceptable.

“It is time – it is past time – to modernize U.S. food safety laws and regulations. We also need to allocate sufficient resources to cope with the growing, varied risks that threaten today's more abundant and diverse food supply.

“Recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have brought a greater sense of urgency. We need to act – and we need to act now.

“I take heart from the fact that the President's Food Safety Working Group has kicked off a national dialogue on this issue. Likewise, those of us in Congress with food-safety jurisdiction are moving forward aggressively. I am confident that, working together, we can and will pass comprehensive food safety reform in this Congress.”

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