The Obama administration on Tuesday ordered 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 the wake of a salmonella outbreak.
The administration, concerned by delays in identifying the source of the salmonella contamination that sickened more than 700 people in 46 states earlier this year, also moved to create a better tracing system for identifying the origin of foodborne illnesses.
The actions, to be unveiled by the administration at an event on Tuesday, were based on recommendations from a Food Safety Working Group created by President Barack Obama in March after a salmonella outbreak in peanut products forced the largest food recall in U.S. history.
The Working Group is recommending a new public health-focused approach to food safety based on three core principles: prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement and improving response and recovery, the White House said in a statement.
Groups briefed on the recommendations praised the administration for placing prevention at the heart of the plan. Donna Rosenbaum of Safe Tables Our Priority called it a large step in the right direction.
Scott Faber of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said, The new rules in combination with legislation ... will lay a new foundation for our food safety system by making the prevention of contamination the focus of our food safety strategies.
A panel of the House of Representatives passed a food safety overhaul last month and a similar bill has been introduced in the Senate. The actions proposed by the administration anticipate passage of the pending legislation.
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.
Giving one person within FDA, the deputy commissioner of foods, the power to oversee all food safety activities, including science and inspections, will significantly improve the agency's ability to target the most significant sources of contamination, Faber said.
RULE ON EGG PRODUCTION
The FDA issued a rule aimed at reducing salmonella contamination of eggs during production.
The rule requires increased monitoring for the bacteria and efforts to prevent its spread. Some 79,000 people are sickened every year and 30 die as a result of egg-borne salmonella in the United States. The White House estimated the new rule would cut illnesses by 60 percent, with a savings of $1 billion.
The administration also 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.
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.
Faber 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.
E.coli sickens some 70,000 people in the United States every year, causing diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever. One in 15 people sickened by the bacteria develops more severe complications, which could include kidney failure and death.
The administration said it would also improve the government's ability to trace foodborne illnesses back to their source through a new tracking system. The FDA will issue guidance to the food industry within three months on the steps to take.