Obama moves on food safety: will it mean fewer sick people?

Reuters is reporting this morning ahead of a press conference later today by recently formed supergroup, the Food Safety Working Group (right, not exactly as shown), that the Obama administration is ordering tougher steps to curb salmonella and E.coli contamination in U.S. food processing plants and created a new deputy food commissioner post to coordinate safety.

In response to the working group recommendations, the administration created a new position — deputy commissioner for foods — at the Food and Drug Administration to increase coordination of food safety activities in different parts of the federal government.

Other highlights include:

• the FDA has issued a rule aimed at reducing salmonella contamination of eggs during production;

• the administration directed the Food Safety and Inspection Service to develop standards by the end of the year to reduce salmonella in turkey and poultry;

• to reduce E.coli contamination of beef, the FSIS was directed to improve surveillance and testing for the bacteria in plants that handle beef, especially ground beef; and,

• the administration said the FDA would issue new guidance to the industry by the end of the month in an effort to reduce E.coli contamination in tomatoes, melons and green leafy vegetables.

Scott Faber of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said the absence of a federal standard for commodities like leafy greens, tomatoes and melons was the "biggest hole in the current food safety net" and the proposal to issue guidance "is the single most important step that we can take to reduce the risk of foodborne contamination."

Yes, fresh produce is the biggest hole – although all the processing-related outbreaks of late suggest a fairly big hole – but FDA has been issuing guidance for growing safe, fresh produce for 10 years. Does anyone follow it? Will more guidance mean fewer sick people? Doubtful.

As I wrote when the supergroup, Food Safety Working Group, announced its inaugural tour back in March, ??????U.S. President Obama is excellent at setting tone, and maybe that’s the best that can be expected. At least food safety is on the White House agenda. Maybe it will send a message that everyone, from farm-to-fork, needs to get super-serious about providing microbiologically safe food. Maybe that will increase the safety of the food supply and result in fewer sick people. Maybe there will be a hit single to be found in the Working Group’s first release.