So much for hope: best Obama food safety group can do is ‘we have safest food in world’

The last thing people need from any agency is another list of tips to protect consumers from foodborne illness.

Salmonella in jalapeno’s, E. coli in leafy greens and strawberries, listeria in cantaloupes. These are not consumer issues. The only thing consumers can do is to avoid such products. But with no marketing of food safety at retail, shoppers really can’t choose until long after defective foodstuffs are publicized and recalled.

Faith-based food safety.

So when U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius is reduced to reciting meaningless clichés to describe food safety achievements in the Obama administration — “We have the safest food supply in the world, but we can always do more to protect consumer” — they’ve thrown in the towel.

The feds are also going to refocus on consumer education, whatever that means.

As some smart policy wonk (not an oxymoron, in this specific case) told me 25 years ago, when politicians talk about educating people, things have really gone off the rails.

As part of clear consumer education and communication, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today issued a progress report highlighting the accomplishments and strategies of President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) combined with useful information for consumers on safe food handling.

Who said the information was useful? Was the information evaluated? Were consumers asked if they thought the information was useful? Did anyone test to see if this useful information translated into food safety behavioral change? Or is useful just some characterization thrown in by a PR flunky.

“As families across the country share in this holiday season, it is important to reiterate our commitment to protecting the food supply and our desire to remain vigilant to protect the American people,” said Secretary Vilsack. “We have taken a number of steps to improve the safety of America’s meat and poultry supply in recent years and the President’s Food Safety Working Group has proven to be a vital component to our work.”

Yes, the full report highlights a number of accomplishments. Most of these are good. But when the “FSWG also plans to continue its efforts to improve food safety by collaborating more with state and local health and agriculture agencies, and food producers, as well as providing education to consumers” in the absence of any science or data to support such information provision, they’ve thrown in the towel.

How many food poisoners can you spot on this list?

As Eddie Murphy said in the movie, 48 Hours, “A badge and a gun goes a long way. … There’s a new sheriff in town.”

That’s the impression the Obama Administration is trying to project with a spate of announcements to enhance food safety, which makes me feel it’s 1994 all over again … and look, there’s Michael Taylor back as a food safety advisor at the Food and Drug Administration (good choice, BTW).

For all the various announcements and endorsements today, the list of invitees to the White House is the most telling. How many food poisoners can you spot on this list, the ones who profit from selling food, have proven themselves incapable of providing safe food, and now have to ask for a babysitter?

Below is a list of expected attendees at today’s Food Safety Announcement, including representatives from consumer, industry, producer associations, public health, and academic organizations.
* Vice President Joe Biden
* Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
* Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
* Dr. Peggy Hamburg, Commissioner, FDA
* Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Deputy Commissioner, FDA
* Melody Barnes, Director, Domestic Policy Council
* Dr. John Holdren, Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy
* Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)
* Representative John Dingell (D-MI)
* Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI)
(in alphabetical order by last name)
* Brent Baglien, ConAgra Foods
* Andrew Bailey, National Turkey Federation
* Scott Becker, Association of Public Health Laboratories
* Georges Benjamin, American Public Health Association
* Ellen Bloom, Consumers Union
* Abigail Blunt, Kraft Foods
* Melane Boyce, Confectioners Association
* Thomas Bradshaw, American Frozen Food Institute
* David Buck, Center for Foodborne Illness, Research & Prevention
* Christine Bushway, Organic Trade Association
* Jonathan Cantu, Government Accountability Project
* Barry Carpenter, National Meat Association
* Anthony Corbo, Food and Water Watch
* Jo Ellen Deutsch- United Food & Commercial Workers International Union
* Caroline DeWaal, Center for Science in the Public Interest
* Orlo Ehart, NASDA
* Cathleen Enright, Western Growers Association
* Sandra Eskin, Georgetown University, Health Policy Institute
* Scott Faber, Grocery Manufacturers of America
* Gregory Ferrara, National Grocers Association
* Anthony Flood, International Food Information Council
* Molly Fogarty, Nestle
* Randall Gordon, National Grain and Feed Association
* Robert Green, United Egg Producers
* Sally Greenberg, National Consumers League
* Lisa Griffith, National Family Farm Coalition
* Robert Guenther, United Fresh Produce Association
* Margaret Henderson, National Fisheries Institute
* James Hodges, American Meat Institute
* Katherine Houston, Cargill, Inc.
* Jonathan James, Allen Family Foods, Inc
* Alice Johnson, ButterBall
* G. Chandler Keys, JBS
* Lonnie King, CDC
* Barbara Masters, Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC
* Margaret Mellon, Union of Concerned Scientists
* Joel Newman, American Feed Industry Association
* Donna Norton, Mom’s Rising
* Erik Olson, Mars
* H. R. Bert Pena, Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP
* Robert Pestronk, National Association of County and City Health Officials
* Adam Reichardt, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials
* Tanya Roberts, Center for Foodborne Illness, Research & Prevention
* Welford Roberts, National Environmental Health Association
* Donna Rosenbaum, S.T.O.P. – Safe Tables Our Priority
* Marianne Rowden, American Association of Exporters and Importers
* Ruth Saunders, International Dairy Foods Association
* Bryan Silbermann, Produce Marketing Association
* Brian Snyder, Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
* Steven Steinhoff, Association of Food and Drug Officials
* Michael Taylor, George Washington University, School of Public Health and Health Services
* Mary Toker, General Mills, Inc.
* Omar Vargas, Pepsi-Cola North America
* Christopher Waldrop, Consumer Federation of America
* Deborah White, Food Marketing Institute
* Heather White, Environmental Working Group
* Andrea Yabulonsky, ConAgra Foods

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.