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President Obama was quoted this morning:

"At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter," Obama told [Matt] Lauer in the interview, which was conducted Sunday at the White House.

Although we're in the middle of a desperate food borne disease outbreak, that's has sickened over 500, hospitalized 125 and killed eight, US Food Safety is in a twilight zone right now. There's no FDA head, there's no CDC head, and there's simply an acting FSIS head. The government approach to food safety issues in the last five decades has grown increasingly confused and confusing; it's been clear for years that the system is no longer working. But each time there's a new foodborne disease outbreak, we try to use the same system to get different results. Now that we have a new president and a new Administration, it's time to do things very differently. No one has better illustrated how to rapidly create real change than President Obama, so let's take some ideas directly from the Presidential Play Book and apply these to making our kid's food safe.

President Obama was elected with an unprecedented coalition of voters that transcended age, race, income, gender, and class. The Grass Roots campaign had a huge impact on the election at every level, and there are two kinds of grass roots campaigns that will be enormously effective for changing food safety in the US.

  1.  The Citizen Grass Roots campaign: Improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness, and create a popular campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Citizen Food Coalition, which would use consumer power to promote a no-tolerance policy toward growers and companies that produce tainted food.
  1.  The Professional Grass Roots Campaign: Proper food safety monitoring begins in the local health professional community, too. By the time it's caught the attention of Federal authorities, it's too late-there's already a large outbreak. The most important thing we can do to stop large outbreaks at the initial cases is to improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders - ER physicians and local doctors - need to be encouraged to routinely test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly, at the first sign of questionable symptoms-diarrhea, vomiting, fever. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped.
  1.  The Team of Rivals: Local, state and federal health agencies need to be encouraged to work together. Turf battles need to take a back seat to stopping an outbreak and tracking it to its source. That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending producer - not an entire industry - are brought to heal.
  1. Utilize Social and Digital Media - Exploit cutting edge Technology: President Obama utilized social and digital media in ways that were unprecedented for an electoral campaign, and the health and food safety community can learn a huge lesson from this. We need to get the message out rapidly when there is an outbreak, and equally importantly, we need to use all technology available to track and monitor products before outbreaks occur. How about an iphone app that instantly tells you if the food you're about to purchase is on a recall list? Those interested in sustainability in seafood have created the Fish Phone, which instantly tells you if the fish you're about to order is on a watch list for contamination or for environmental problems. Why not apply this same technology to food safety? President Obama uses youtube, email, twitter, radio, TV, podcasts, and streaming video to get his message out, and there's no reason the food safety community can't take advantage of this, too. When an outbreak occurs, authorities can quickly identify the source and limit the spread of the contamination, as well as stop the disruption to the economy.
  1. Training and Education: In order to work for President Obama, candidates are required to fill out an twenty-two page application, get letters of recommendation, interview, and, in some cases, provide full disclosure of their financial histories. We need the same strict, transparent standards to apply to those who work in food safety, and we need to go one step further: Our food safety workers need to be trained---and licensed--to do what they are doing. There need to be comprehensive licensing requirements for large farm, manufacturing, wholesale and retail food outlets, so that nobody gets a license until they and their employees have shown they understand food safety hazards and how to avoid them at every point of the processing timeline.
  1. The economic stimulus element: Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety interventions and employee training.
  1. The Education element of the stimulus package: University research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination.
  1. President Obama has addressed terrorism issues since the Inauguration: We need a new emphasis on revamping homeland security, as well as changing the way international terrorism is dealt with. It's time to start thinking about this issue from a food safety standpoint; imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors - domestically and abroad - and we need to require that they receive the training in how to identify and control hazards.
  1. Lastly, we can't overlook the legal issues in food safety: As a lawyer, President Obama is very aware of the incentives that legal consequences provide for changing behavior. Right now there are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

The time has come to pay attention and act and not continue simply to react. Consumers, Farmers, Suppliers, Manufacturers, Retailers, Regulators and Politicians need to work together to make our food supply safe, profitable and sustainable. When a quarter of our population is sickened yearly by contaminated food, when thousands die, we do not have the "safest food supply in the world. We should, must and can do better.

Originally posted to Bill Marler on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 05:19 PM PST.


Have you stopped eating peanut butter?

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48%12 votes

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Comment Preferences

  •  Bill, you should comment (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eddie C, renaissance grrrl, koNko, 1BQ

    people hesitate to post waiting for the diarist to kind of seed the discussion, so to speak....

    I haven't had to give up peanut butter because I'm allergic and don't have any ever.  At least not on purpose.

    What's your feeling on small farmers and farms?  Say there's a raw milk salmonella issue.  Would they face the same penalties?  I'm hearing a lot of drama here about the assaults on small farmers and it's hard to know where the line is between public health and reasonable policy for small farmers.

    Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

    by mem from somerville on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 05:37:03 PM PST

    •  That is my problem too (3+ / 0-)

      When we start talking about "tracking," and testing everything, I start to worry about the burdens on small farmers and producers.  There has to be some lower limit for the size of the operation when regulatory procedures are put into place, or all they will do is drive small producers out of business.

      •  Tough one - the small producers need to be held (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        to the same degree of accountability as the large agri-conglomerates.

        At the same time, I can't think of an equitable way of applying penalties as a percentage of sales or profits.

        Nor do I think you can base penalties on number of verified complaints (X for a first offense, x + y for a second, etc.), though it would seem that a small producer would have fewer complaints than a large one based on number of customers.

        When did 60 become the new 51?

        by 1BQ on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 06:40:05 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  A good model (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        renaissance grrrl

        Is how China is responding to the milk crisis and reforming a system that has, in spades, exactly the problem you mention, too many small producers with too litel knowledge and essentially no complaince resources.

        Basically, the government has taken the approach to improve standardization/enforcement of requirements and test methods, provide education/training, and to finance the establishment of regional test labs to service small producers on a cooperative basis.  In this case, even where he law was clear, a lack of resources at enforcement level was also part of the problem and I believe this may also be the case here.

        Having myself worked in an underfunded environmental regulation agency(in the past) I can tell you that while some regulators may be lazy, neglectful or corrupt, most would like to do their jobs but face difficulty to do so due to lack of resources, or overly complicated laws/regulations that simply do not accomplish what they should.

        Certianly small produces may need supporting resources, I don't think that is such a big problem if there is the political will to reform the system.  The equipement required for a basic food testing lab is in the range of $1-2m, for less than $500m the US could have regional labs to service producers/enforcers.  What may prevent it is the fact enforcement is too localized and juridictional battles may prevent efective use of funding and enforcement.  We have some of the same problems here in China and these can really only be solved by federal authorities - underfunded local authorities will struggle as much as small producers.

        Ask me about my daughter's future - Ko

        by koNko on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 07:42:40 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  wouldn't be the first time i would have had (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    a blow out with salmonella. so i'll eat the peanut butter.....the truth probably is: that the food supply is as safe as it ever has been....yup, no ddt on the grocery brocolli today... isn't it great that we can sequence the "bugs" and track down the source.... sure, it would be wonderful if we could live a life without risk, but guess what??? no amount of money you throw at it will give that result... so, can we do somewhat better???---sure, but don't expect the moon.

    things are not more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think.

    by markie on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 05:39:13 PM PST

  •  You miss one very importiant point (0+ / 0-)

    International standards, something the US historically tends to resist.

    In this particular case I don't think the source of the problem is imported raw materials but many recent cases have been and food securety is now a global issue.

    Standardizing requirements and methods make enforcement at any level more effective, facillitates compliance by producers and takes away excuses not to compy (or regulate as the case may be).

    With all due respect, I don't see how all the competition you suggest will improve matters, what is actually needed is more cooperation.

    There is no lack of modern technology and established methods, just a lack of enforcement since the system is a mess. Standardize, educate, enforce.

    I think the idea for tax breaks to reward companies is not a very good idea since it implies companies need to be bribed to fulfill basic obligations, and the tendancy is this would become a giveaway to larger companies that have better resources for complainance, and a punishment for smaller companies that may struggle.

    Perhaps the past policy of the Dept of Argriculture to provide information and assistance to small farmers is a better model.  Teach a man to fish, don't give him fish.

    BTW, in case you are wondering, I don't work in the food industry but do have experience with environmental and safety compliance in industry including medical products, so my perspective is to cut out the red tape that often inhibits compliance and simplify the system so it can be done.  No doubt the US and world face various food related risks, but we are not starting from scratch and don't need to futher complicate what is already too complicated.

    Don'Forget the Tip jar.

    Ask me about my daughter's future - Ko

    by koNko on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 07:28:09 PM PST

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