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Commentary: Food safety: Rebuilding consumer confidence

Food safety -- and the public's trust in our ability to produce safe and wholesome products -- is a cornerstone of modern agriculture. It's the first and most important reason American agriculture exists, and that trust is a valuable asset that must be protected and cultivated just like we protect and cultivate our crops and livestock.

Just as we can't assume that a crop will thrive all summer without attention, we must always keep in mind that the trust of the public is not permanent. It can be strengthened or weakened depending on how all of us in the farm and food sector do our jobs. That message has been hitting home lately as I've watched and read media coverage of the investigation into contaminated peanut butter and peanut butter products around the country.

It is already one of the most extensive and costly product recalls ever. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the list of products recalled in association with this investigation now includes more than 2,100 products. More than 640 people have fallen ill, and at least nine have died -- including three in Minnesota. My sympathy goes out to the victims and their families. It is a tragedy to lose a loved one under any circumstance, much less from a preventable situation. Their losses are sobering reminders of why everyone from government regulators to private-sector executives to plant workers need to make food safety the highest of priorities.

With that in mind, I am grateful for the important contributions made by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture laboratory staff and food inspection team in identifying the contaminated products and tracing them to their source. I also appreciate the skill the Minnesota Department of Health showed in detecting patterns of food-borne illness in the state.

The MDH skills in detecting and investigating human illnesses complement MDA's skills in finding product contamination and tracing those products to their source. Our system in Minnesota is not perfect, but the capabilities of MDA and MDH mean that Minnesota consumers are well-served when it comes to detecting and preventing problems in our food supply.

However, this good news is tempered by the fact that the peanut butter episode has become a black eye for the nation's food safety system. In an interconnected economy where products flow across borders every day, food safety weaknesses anywhere affect consumers everywhere. The confidence of our consumers can be shaken as much by a problem on the East Coast as by a problem in our own community. If that confidence is lost, the economic impacts can be felt far beyond the circle of companies or producers directly affected by an incident.

That's why I believe we need a renewed commitment here in Minnesota and elsewhere across the nation to look for ways to maximize the safety and quality of our food. Government regulators must boost our own effectiveness, but we also need contributions from producers, processors, retailers, and consumers.

It is nice to see media accounts praising Minnesota's efforts in the peanut butter investigation, but every day brings new food safety challenges. We will be using this peanut butter case as a motivation to work even harder to make sure that we enjoy the safest food in the world. I urge everyone with food safety responsibilities -- from the farm gate to the dinner plate - to do the same.

Gene Hugoson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.