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Peterson says shift food safety to USDA

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota 7th District Democrat who chairs the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, talks about holding hearings in his committee on food safety in the next few weeks during an interview Monday in Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which aggressively inspects meat and poultry, should take over food processing inspections, says U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.

In response to the recent outbreak of salmonella-tainted peanut butter, "I think the solution to this is to take the inspection away from FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and give it to USDA," says Peterson, DFL-7th District.

"I think we're the ones who are the best suited to know how to do this," said Peterson, chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee which has jurisdiction over the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Peterson, interviewed Monday while he was in Bemidji, has authored bills before to move FDA food inspection duties to USDA, and he says he will introduce it again.

"We're having a hearing on food safety in my committee in the next two or three weeks, now that we've got this derivative bill out" Peterson said.

The Ag Committee spent its opening weeks of the current session working on a bill to increase transparency and oversight of futures trading over the counter. The bill, approved by the committee Feb. 13, makes the Commodity Futures Trading Commission -- which is under the Agriculture Committee's jurisdiction -- the clearinghouse for such instruments rather than the Federal Reserve or the Securities Exchange Commission.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., and Agriculture Committee member has been working with fruit and vegetable producers on legislation to move those industries' food inspections to USDA, Peterson said.

"We're going to have some hearings on that," the Minnesota Democrat said.

"We have jurisdiction over meat and catfish," says Peterson. "FDA has jurisdiction over everything else. We're not perfect, but our track record is a helluva lot better at USDA than it is at FDA."

For USDA inspections, "we have people in the line," he said. "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.

FDA doesn't operate like that, he said, adding it operates similarly to the SEC on Wall Street. "Their idea is to go out and ... license a plant, give them a bunch of rules that they have to follow. Then, instead of having somebody there, they come in and test once in a while."

The Agriculture Committee chairman said he wasn't so much worried about big branded companies than he was those producers who market to institutions, such as the peanut butter company under question for the salmonella outbreak.

"Any company that's in this business, it's in their best interests -- they're the ones who will be hurt the most if something happens -- to make sure that there are no problems," he said. "If you build up a brand, such as Kraft cheese, you've spent hundreds of millions of dollars establishing that brand name. You can't afford to have that brand name destroyed because of some kind of an outbreak."

Big brand name companies have a vital interest in keeping food safe, Peterson said. "But these outlaying companies like Peanut Corp. of America that nobody's ever heard of ... sell only to food services which are looking for the cheapest product. It's where the brand can't get hurt."

Peterson said he would trust the big brand companies in this process more than the little companies. He cited Schwan's Foods, a 7th District company and the world's largest frozen food company. "They can't afford to have a deal (outbreak).""

Marshall-based Schwan's did have an incident with tainted ice cream about 15 years ago, he said, "which hurt them very badly."

Peterson said he visited by phone with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., before her panel discussion Monday on food safety, at which she told him of her plans to call for criminal prosecution of the owner of the Georgia peanut -processing company linked to the current national salmonella outbreak. She also said federal laws should be changed to prevent future outbreaks.

"I told Amy if you're going to get FDA to (inspect), they're going to have to start having people there, monitoring the product also like we do at USDA," Peterson said. "The problem is they don't have anywhere near enough people to do that."

If people really want food safety, that's what needs to be done, he said. "And it's going to cost more money."

While Democrats Peterson and Klobuchar want to look into ways the federal government can make food safer, a Minnesota Republican colleague takes a bit different stance.

The federal government should be involved "as little as possible," Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline said in an interview.

Kline said federal officials should set standards, but "one size fits all" does not work in regulating food production.

Klobuchar, who held a Monday roundtable about food safety, said she supports criminal laws to penalize companies that knowingly distribute dangerous food items. She said some food safety laws can change quickly, spurred by the peanut butter problem, but other changes will take years.

Food safety is important to farmers, says Kevin Paap, president of the state's largest organization of farmers and ranchers, the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation.

"In agriculture and in food safety, there's no room for bad actors," Paap said. "If people are doing things against the law, against the label, we in agriculture have no time for bad actors in anything."

A team approach is needed, said Paap, interviewed Wednesday at the State Capitol in St. Paul. "We've got to do a better job to ensure and to give confidence in our food safety.

"It is everybody's responsibility for food safety -- from the start when I put the seed in the ground, until it is harvested, transported, as it moves through the chain to the processing -- we all have to work together to do everything we can to make sure our food supply stays safe ... to the time the consumer picks it off the shelve in the grocery store," he said.

As to Peterson's idea of moving inspections from FSA to USDA, Paap said that "we've got a lot of people doing a lot of different things, and we need to make sure we all understand the right hand knows what the left hand is doing in food safety,"

Paap said that "we need to make sure that we've got a system that works, a system that is in place, and a system that quite frankly that people play by the rules."

Don Davis contributed to this story. Davis works in the State Capitol Bureau for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.