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Food safety on front burner at Capitol Hill, White House

by Joan Murphy | May 13, 2009
WASHINGTON  Produce businesses will need to keep a close eye on Washington in the coming month as a powerful congressional committee is slated to take up food-safety legislation after Memorial Day and a high-level White House task force is looking at how best to improve government oversight.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee, said that he plans to have a draft food-safety bill ready by mid- May and start holding hearings on food-safety legislation right after the Memorial Day recess.

There is no word yet on when the Senate will take up S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act penned by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), one of the bills that would set new safety standards for fresh produce.

But President Obama is not waiting for Congress to act.

On May 13, he held the first on-line listening session with his Food Safety Working Group, and United Fresh Produce Association President Tom Stenzel represented the produce industry at the White House meeting.

In a March 14 speech, President Obama unveiled his Food Safety Working Group, chaired by the secretaries of the Department of Health & Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, to "bring together cabinet secretaries and senior officials to advise me on how we can upgrade our food-safety laws for the 21st century; foster coordination throughout government; and ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them."

About 100 invited members from public health, industry, Congress, government and consumer groups broke into five groups to hammer out recommendations on the tenets of a new food-safety system at the May 13 meeting.

Mr. Stenzel, who participated in the breakout group on risk-based inspection, pointed out that only certain commodities and not the entire fresh produce industry need to be scrutinized under such a plan. There was a lot of consensus on the need to focus on preventing contamination vs. trying to catch it later, he said. Someone said, 'We need to keep the needles out of the haystack.' [But] the devil will be in the details.

The Food Safety Working Group is moving fast to collect recommendations for the president, whose administration is likely to play an important role in whatever final legislation comes out of Congress.