Food safety hearings began Thursday by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, including testimony from a major Minnesota grocer.
Food safety is a top priority in the committee's oversight plan for the 111th Congress, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told the Bemidji Pioneer last month.
Witnesses at Thursday's hearing included three former federal food safety officials and several food companies that interact with federal food safety agencies, including John Hanlin, vice president for food safety for Eden Prairie-based Supervalu Inc.
"While it's true that our current food safety system and those entrusted to produce wholesome and safe products do a good job most of the time, it's clear that there are gaps in the system, and some modernization and improvements are needed," Peterson said Thursday in a statement.
Peterson would like to move Food and Drug Administration food safety inspections over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture which already handles meat and poultry inspections.
For USDA inspections, "we have people in the line," he told the Pioneer last month. "At a slaughter plant, we have somebody there when they're killing the animal. We have somebody there who is on the line when the stuff's going through."
USDA's inspection services include hazard analysis and critical control points as a production quality control system, he said. It's a system where potential hazards are identified and risks are analyzed in each phase of production to minimize the entry of food borne pathogens into the food supply.
"Those inspectors, in addition to being on the line, test that to make sure that the critical control points are doing their job, or finding things at a point where you can catch it before it goes into the system," Peterson said.
In the most recent food crisis, tainted peanut butter, it was revealed that the FDA made periodic inspections at the Georgia plant, but not constant oversight.
"As we examine food safety issues we should judge each proposal as to whether it contributes to or reduces the ability of our farmers and ranchers to provide our consumers with the safest, most affordable, most abundant food supply in the history of the world," U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., ranking Republican on the Ag Committee, said in Thursday's statement.
Supervalu's Hanlin testified that while inspections are thorough for meat products, such as hamburger, they aren't as thorough for processed foods, such as cheeseburger sandwiches.
"We have entered a new age of food safety," he testified. "Scientific advances in the fields of epidemiology, DNA fingerprinting of pathogens and good laboratory practices, are showing that the same bacteria that were traditionally associated with beef, poultry, eggs and pork are contaminating raw agricultural commodities."
Better inspection of raw agricultural commodities that end up in processed foods is needed, Hanlin said.
"We need to modernize our food safety inspection and enforcement system," he said. "Consumers are changing their dietary habits -- they're listening to the messages about the importance of increased consumption of fresh fruit and produce. Our scientists in government, at universities, in industry and those working for consumer groups understand how organisms traditionally associated with animals and birds can contaminate fruit and produce and make people sick."
Supervalu proposes a "refocus and realignment of our current food safety inspection systems," Hanlin testified.
"Specifically we propose taking the successful risk-based USDA surveillance, inspection and enforcement model that has helped reduce the incidence salmonella in poultry and has highlighted the challenges associated with reducing E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef and expanding to other agricultural commodities like spinach, and other leafy greens, tomatoes, fresh fruits, peanuts, pistachios, grains and other raw agricultural commodities," he said.
In other words, Hanlin said, USDA's risk-based inspection system should be expanded to include commodities that today receive minimal inspection due to budget challenges at FDA.
Carol Tucker-Foreman, distinguished fellow at The Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America and a former USDA assistant secretary, testified that there should be a single independent food safety agency that would combine all federal food safety functions.
As an interim step, CFA said FDA should be divided into a Federal Drug Administration and a Food Safety Administration with the Department of Health and Human Services, providing separate budget authority and leadership for food.
"CFA does not support moving meat and poultry inspection to the Department of HHS," she said. "Addressing the very serious problems that now plague FDA's food safety programs and possibly creating a new Food Safety Administration within HHS will be a major undertaking, not leaving resources for integrating a much larger program.
"In addition, as the FDA has slipped into dysfunction, the food safety functions of the USDA have made some progress toward a more modern and science-based program," she added. "Little more can be done without rewriting the authorizing statutes. We urge this committee, in cooperation with the Obama administration, to take the lead in developing new authority ..."
Imported food needs the same strict oversight as domestic food, testified David Dever, president and CEO of California fresh produce producer Pandol Brothers Inc.
"We believe that product imported into the United States needs to meet equivalent standards as that required of domestic produce," he testified. "U.S. food safety officials can work together with foreign food safety officials to ensure and verify that equivalent policies and standards are in place."
Dever also called for closer oversight of processed foods, as they aren't as stringently inspected as meat or fresh produce.
"Within the food supply chain there are many people involved in the process and many procedures that need to be complied with in order to minimize risk of contaminated food," he said. "The additional cost to develop and implement the systems along with the verification and audit process is costly. We must encourage participation of governmental agencies in providing input into the ongoing development of commodity-specific science based standards."
The company doesn't have the necessary personnel to monitor the compliance of non-Pandol suppliers, he said, so it must rely on the honesty and integrity of those with which they do business, he said.
"Therefore, we believe achieving consistent produce safety standards across the industry requires strong federal government oversight and responsibility in order to be most credible to consumers and equitable to producers," Dever said.
Peterson said Thursday's hearing was the first of several hearings that the panel will hold this year to consider food safety issues.