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Pioneer Editorial: Klobuchar takes lead in food safety

Last winter's peanut butter scare heightened Americans' attention to food safety, bringing to the forefront an issue that has threatened to break through for several years -- from tainted spinach to troubled red peppers.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., has taken a lead role in coming to grips with better measures of food safety and, most importantly, preventing foodborne illnesses in the first place.

On Thursday, she announced she will introduce legislation to promote a more rapid and effective national response to outbreaks of foodborne sickness, like the recent outbreak of salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

The Food Safety Rapid Response Act of 2009 would strengthen federal, state and local capabilities for investigating outbreaks of foodborne disease and tracing the sources of contamination. Since Minnesota played a crucial role in discovering peanut butter as the latest outbreak source, Klobuchar would use Minnesota as a model for her bill.

In Minnesota, the state Department of Health, state Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota collaborated to solve the mystery. The Minnesota model includes a Team D -- for "Team Diarrhea -- which is a group of investigators that races into action when there are suspected cases of foodborne illness in a state.

Minnesota's Team D not only solved the peanut butter case, but also last spring solved the nationwide outbreak of salmonella as arising from jalapeno peppers from Mexico.

"The nation should not have to wait until someone in Minnesota gets sick or dies before there is an effective national response to a large-scale outbreak of foodborne illness," Klobuchar said Thursday. "The problem is that the responsibility to investigate potential foodborne diseases rests largely with local and state health departments, and there is tremendous variation in terms of the priority they give to this responsibility. Food safety is a national issue that deserves national action."

Klobuchar's bill would:

E Direct the Centers for Disease Control to enhance the nation's foodborne disease surveillance system by improving the collection, analysis, reporting and usefulness of data among local, state and federal agencies as well as the food industry.

E Direct the CDC to provide support and expertise to state health agencies and laboratories for their investigations of foodborne disease, promoting "best practices" for food safety investigation.

E Establish regional "Centers of Excellence for Food Safety" in collaboration with higher education institutions and state public health agencies to assist state and local agencies, building on Minnesota's Team D model.

It is reassuring that a Minnesota senator is taking such decisive action from a state where food and agriculture are important commodities. Also a lead sponsor of the earlier Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 to revitalize the Food and Drug Administration, Klobuchar has demonstrated leadership in food safety issues.