WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House is trying to make Americans' food safer afterrecent recalls of popular products like peanut butter and cookiedough.
A food safety working group established by President BarackObama said Tuesday that the government will try and boost thesafety of some of the nation's most popular foods, announcingstricter rules for the production of eggs, poultry, beef, leafygreens, melons and tomatoes. The new standards are an effort toreduce instances of salmonella and E. coli contamination.
The group, headed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack andHealth and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is alsodirecting the Food and Drug Administration to help the foodindustry establish better tracing systems if there is an outbreak,so the origins of a disease can be quickly found. A new network tohelp the many agencies that regulate food safety communicate betterwill also be created.
Tougher standards, including stiffer penalties and increasedinspections, are included in legislation approved by a House panelearlier this year.
The White House and Congress have turned their attention to theissue after a string of food safety breakdowns in recent years,from contaminated spinach in 2006 to salmonella in peppers andpossibly tomatoes last year.
Earlier this year a massive salmonella outbreak in peanutproducts sickened hundreds, was suspected of causing nine deathsand led to one of the largest product recalls in U.S. history. Inthe past month, Nestle Toll House cookie dough and 380,000 poundsof beef produced by the JBS Swift Beef Co. of Greeley, Colo., havebeen recalled due illnesses caused by E. coli contamination.
In March, Obama said he would create a special advisory group tocoordinate antiquated food safety laws and recommend ways to updatethem. The FDA does not have enough money or workers to conductannual inspections at more than a fraction of the 150,000 foodprocessing plants and warehouses in the country, Obama said.
Under the new rules:
—Egg and poultry producers will have to follow newstandards designed to reduce salmonella contamination, includingincreased testing and refrigeration for eggs.
—The Food Safety Inspection Service, the AgricultureDepartment agency that inspects meat, will increase sampling ofground beef ingredients in an effort to better find E. colicontamination.
—The FDA will recommend ways that producers of leafygreens, melons and tomatoes can reduce disease strains, and requirestricter standards in those industries within two years.
—The FDA and the Agriculture Department will create newpositions to better oversee food safety. The FDA said Tuesday thatMike Taylor, a food safety expert and George Washington Universityprofessor, will serve as a senior adviser to the commissioner.
Consumer groups said the new rules were good first steps asCongress considers even stricter measures.
"We still urgently need to overhaul our badly outdated laws sothat FDA has the tools and funds they need to inspect, prevent anddetect food contamination," said Erik D. Olson, director of foodand consumer product safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "FDA mustbe able to strongly enforce against food companies that importcontaminated foods or hide test results showing contamination."
Vice President Joe Biden, who joined Vilsack and Sebelius forthe announcement, said the administration's efforts to preventdisease are an important new approach.
"The focus on prevention is to have a completely differentemphasis than we've had in the past," Biden said. "In the pastwe've focused on better reactions to food safety problems when theyoccur."
The Agriculture Department inspects meat and poultry, and sharesinspections of eggs with the FDA. The FDA inspects most otherfoods, but at least 15 government agencies are a part of the foodsafety system.
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