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.

Food Safety Working Group hears ‘good is simply not good enough’

A White House Food Safety Working Group Listening Session was held Wednesday that marked "the beginning of a significant and critical process that will fully review the safety of our nation’s food supply," according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

In his opening remarks, Vislack outlined several specific challenges that would require imput from the stakeholders present at the session. These included the development of an approach consistent between the FDA and USDA for preventing foodborne illnesses, as well as an active surveillance and response system for foodborne disease outbreaks.

In regards to the latter, Vislack stated, "Our regulatory agencies must actively watch for disease outbreaks and take rapid action to ensure that we have effective and targeted recalls. Such recalls are in the interests of public health and the strength of industry sectors that might otherwise be tarnished by massive recalls."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who oversees the FDA and the CDC, also briefly mentioned the subject of foodborne outbreaks in her opening remarks, saying, "When outbreaks do occur, we must all respond quickly, both to protect public health and to speed the recovery of affected industries."

Sebelius went on to say, “We have already made good use of new tools to protect and inform the public. When peanut products were recalled, we produced a widget that was placed on more than 20,000 external Web sites and resulted in 9.6 million page views. And as we saw during the H1N1 flu outbreak, communication is critical during any kind of crisis and we will use every tool possible to get the word out."

However, she failed to mention how effective that tool was in protecting public health and speeding the recovery of the peanut industry.

As Vislack stated at the end of his opening remarks, "[W]e need to develop a way to measure our success… Lives are at stake and good is simply not good enough."

Obama wants Sebelius to seek out the science of health

Being that I’m living in the middle of Kansas, I just caught a live broadcast of President Obama announcing his nomination of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to the head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Media sources emphasize that, as Secretary of HHS, Sebelius would be implementing the president’s plans for health care reform, along with Nancy-Ann DeParle – an American expert on health care issues and Obama’s pick for “Health Reform Czar”.

However, Obama pointed out in his announcement that it’s not all about health insurance; the position is also responsible for the oversight of several agencies that serve as protective forces, including the FDA and the CDC.

The president alluded to changes in that area of the department as well, and noted the importance of science over politics when determining the best approaches to protecting the health of Americans.

Sebelius will have her work cut out for her on many levels, so I hope she holds that mind: Keeping the poop out of food safety policy is a great way to keep poop out of food.