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Obama Announces Food Safety Overhaul

Mar 16, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
Obama Announces Food Safety Overhaul

President Obama Choosed Dr. Hamburg To Head FDA

Last week we reported that President Barack Obama announced his choice of Dr. Margaret Hamburg to head the beleaguered U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with Dr. Joshua Sharfstein to serve as Hamburg’s next-in-command.  Now, President Obama has announced the formation of a Cabinet-level food safety group, as well as plans to increase the number of FDA food inspectors, and plans to bring food safety labs to current standards, Reuters reported.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that Obama said food safety protection is a priority for the new administration and is investing a billion dollars into improved labs and additional inspectors.  Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Obama  discussed a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule to ensure sick and injured cattle are excluded from slaughterhouses in order to protect consumers from mad cow disease.

Regarding the recent FDA nomination, Obama said, "Dr. Hamburg brings to this vital position not only a reputation of integrity, but a record of achievement in making Americans safer and more secure."  Dr. Hamburg is a former New York City health commissioner and Dr. Sharfstein is Baltimore's health commissioner, reported the Seattle Post Intelligencer.  Obama was quoted during his weekly radio address, said Reuters, which focused this week on food safety and not the declining economic situation that has long been the focus of such addresses.  The appointments are pending Senate confirmation.

FDA Has Been Criticized For Massive Outbreak

The FDA has been routinely criticized for lax oversight on drug safety, medical device safety, and food safety issues that include the massive and ongoing salmonella outbreak linked to horrendous conditions at the Peanut Corporation of America.  That outbreak has sickened nearly 700 people and has been linked to at least nine deaths; 46 states are involved and over 3,000 products have been recalled, making this the largest food recall in American history, noted Reuters.

According to Reuters, Obama also said that Health and Human Services secretary nominee former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will head a group to advise on food safety law improvement.  Many feel that Obama’s choices and priorities point to a long-awaited focus on safety over speedy drug and device approvals, said Reuters.

As part of his weekly address, Obama explained that outdated food safety laws were, in part, to blame saying, "Inspection and enforcement is spread out so widely among so many people that it's difficult for different parts of our government to share information, work together, and solve problems," quoted Reuters.  Obama added that the FDA "has been under funded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food-processing plants and warehouses each year. That means roughly 95 percent of them go uninspected," reported Reuters.

“In 2006, it was contaminated spinach. In 2008, it was salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes. And just this year, bad peanut products led to hundreds of illnesses and cost nine people their lives—a painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job,” Obama also said, quoted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).  In an interview earlier this week, Obama told the AJC he wants the federal government to improve how it monitors food processors and to determine ways to identify potential food safety problems quicker.

Need Legal Help Regarding Food Safety Reform?

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