Information Sharing Key to Better Food Safety, Obama Says

Margaret Hamburg to lead the Food and Drug Administration.

by / March 16, 2009

In recent years, the United States has seen an increasing incidence of food contamination. These incidents reflect a troubling trend that has seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year from 100 a year in the early 1990s, President Obama said Saturday in his weekly YouTube address. Obama cited several reasons for this in his address including outdated regulations, fewer inspectors, scaled back inspections of the nation's food supply and a lack of information sharing between the government agencies charged with that responsibility. "The FDA has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years leaving the agency with resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 of our food processing plants and warehouses each year," Obama said. That leaves 95 percent of America's food supply uninspected.

"That is a hazard to public health," he said.

That will change under the new leadership of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he said. In the radio address, he appointed Dr. Margaret Hamburg Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and Joshua Sharfstein deputy commissioner.

Obama also announced the creation of a new Food Safety Working Group to address the steep rise in the incidence of contaminated food. The working group will bring together Cabinet secretaries and senior officials to advise the president on how to best upgrade food safety laws, foster coordination throughout the government and improve the enforcement of food safety laws. Obama directed the working group to report it's recommendations to him "as soon as possible."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also changing a rule that allowed the sale of "downer cattle" into the food supply on a case by case basis. The rule requires cattle that become non-ambulatory disabled after passing ante-mortem inspection, be condemned and properly disposed of.

Obama also announced a plan for a billion-dollar investment in modernizing food safety labs which will include "significantly increasing the number of food inspectors helping ensure that the FDA has the staff and support they need to protect the food we eat," he said.

"In the end, food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your president but as a parent," Obama said. "No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch just as no family should have to worry that the medicines they buy will cause them harm."