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Test EVERY Cow in the Food Chain

Test EVERY Cow in the Food Chain
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

USDA chief cites problems in food safety system

Tue Mar 31, 2009 6:09pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. food safety system is divided by competing philosophies and a lack of accountability that make it harder to protect consumers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday as the country faced another food recall.

High-profile recalls since 2006 have led to vociferous calls by lawmakers, the Obama administration and consumer groups to reform the antiquated system.

In the latest outbreak, a California firm issued a nationwide recall of pistachios on Monday due to possible salmonella contamination, and health regulators told consumers to avoid all pistachio products for now.

"There is no question that whatever system is ultimately devised has to be a system that provides for specific accountability," Vilsack told a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees USDA.

"It seems to me today we have competing philosophies" with the USDA focused more on prevention while the Food and Drug Administration targets mitigation due to a heavy workload and limited staffing, said Vilsack.

Fifteen federal agencies handle food safety including FDA, which handles about 80 percent of the food supply, and USDA, which is in charge of red meat, poultry and eggs.

"When you have 15 separate agencies in the federal government responsible for some part (of food safety), you've got way too many," said Vilsack, who supports a single food agency. Who do "you hold accountable when there is a problem?"

President Barack Obama announced a White House panel this month to improve food safety. He assigned Vilsack to head the group along with former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, his nominee for Health and Human Services secretary.

"We are in an emergency situation today," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the House subcommittee. She urged the working group to move quickly to propose reforms.

"This administration is going to have to weigh in on a direction to take before we put into place legislation that may not get us where we want to go in terms of food safety."

Lawmakers including DeLauro have introduced legislation this year to improve food safety oversight. The bills focus largely on giving the FDA more funding and power, such as the ability to conduct a mandatory recall.

In a separate hearing, Sebelius told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday that improving the nation's food safety required industry involvement as well as beefing up the FDA.

She also said it was too soon to talk about splitting FDA's food and drug safety responsibilities into two agencies as some critics have suggested.

(additional reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by David Gregorio)

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