RegulatoryWatch: Bioterrorism unofficial theme of Food Safety Summit

Silver lining to terrorist attacks is greater cooperation among those who keep the nation’s food supply secure.

The shock waves from September 11 continue to be felt in the food industry. The federal government has signaled its intent to increase its regulatory role in the nation’s food supply, a trend food processors are accepting-as long manufacturers have a strong voice in drawing up those regulations. Bioterrorism was an unofficial theme as food industry representatives gathered in Washington for the fourth annual Food Safety Summit, co-sponsored by the National Food Processors Association. Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge delivered a keynote address, calling on manufacturers to aid the government in keeping the food supply out of terrorists’ reach. PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Steven Reinemund said the ongoing threat from terrorists demands a new level of cooperation between the industry that produces the food supply and the government agencies that regulate and protect it. “If there is a silver lining to the terrible attacks on our country, it is a heightened spirit of cooperation and partnership among those who work to keep our nation’s food safe and secure,” Reinemund said. “We need to continue this strong, collaborative process in order to ensure the very safest food supply possible.” He also praised the rapid response of industry trade groups to form alliances with government agencies to ensure the best flow of information possible on the issue of food security.

Mega-million dollar price tag for food safety

A careful reading of the USDA budget reveals an increased food industry regulation component. USDA’s FY2003 budget request for food safety provides $905 million to fund 7,600 inspectors, veterinarians and other food safety officials who regulate and inspect the nation’s meat and poultry supply. It also calls for new spending to step up research activities, refine the quality of scientific data on animal disease-based threats to public health, expand risk prevention and management education for small and very small meat, poultry and egg producers; as well as upgrade the agency’s information and communication systems. Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano told a House committee that the budget request represents a record amount, allowing USDA to enhance its food safety system. Murano also announced a series of nine public forums between now and the end of the year on pathogen reduction and microbial testing.

Processors urged to develop clear recall plans

Government food safety regulators are placing more responsibilities on processors for keeping consumers informed when problems occur, a move likely to result in more public recall announcements. FDA has announced it will begin automatically classifying most allergen-related food recalls in the Class I category, requiring companies to notify the public. A Class I recall is one in which “reasonable probability exists that the use of or exposure to a product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.” FDA’s Class I recall rule is implemented when foods are not properly labeled that they contain one of the following allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, crustaceans, fish and wheat. The International Ice Cream Association recently tackled the issue head on, presenting a roundtable for processors led by Dr. Sue Hefle, University of Nebraska Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, and Dr. Kenneth Falci, of FDA. Processors were urged to develop a recall preparedness plan, mapping out clear communication channels with both the public and government officials.

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