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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Governor Sebelius to Lead Health and Human Services (HHS) – What Will She Do With Food Safety?

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius accepted President Obama’s request to become his secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Governor Sebelius will inherit a department of 65,000 employees responsible for public health, food safety, scientific research, and the administration of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which serve 90 million Americans.

The Food Safety side of HHS is the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). It “is responsible for promoting and protecting the public’s health by ensuring that the nation’s food supply is safe, sanitary, wholesome, and honestly labeled, and that cosmetic products are safe and properly labeled.” Here is the present Organizational Chart (click below for PDF):

If someone has her email or know who she is thinking about tapping for the head of CSFAN, pass this along:

As I have said many, many times, once again, hundreds of Americans have been sickened by poisoned food. This time it is 666 ill in 45 States put down by Salmonella in peanut butter – again. Nine people have died and it is now the largest food recall in US history. Consumers have lost confidence in the businesses that feed them and a government that is supposed to protect them. After a brief lull a few years ago, we’re seeing a sweeping increase in outbreaks of Salmonella, E. coli and other foodborne contaminates. There are many reasons for this ugly trend – businesses more focused on sales than safety, fragmented government agencies, inadequate inspection of foods, poorly educated food handlers and lack of consumer awareness, to name a few. The reality is that we now live in a global food supply and we need to come up with global solutions that leverage our scientific and technological capabilities to prevent human illness and death.

Here are my “top ten” ideas to combat this recurring epidemic:

1.  improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders – ER physicians and local doctors – need to be encouraged to test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly.

2.  These same governmental departments, whether local, state or federal, need to learn to “play well 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.

3.  Require real training and certification of food handlers at restaurants and grocery stores. There also should be incentives for ill employees not to come to work when ill.

4.  Stiffen license requirements for large farm, retail and wholesale food outlets, so that nobody gets a license until they and their employees have shown they understand the hazards and how to avoid them.

5.  Increase food inspections. While domestic production has continued to be a problem, 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.

6.  Reform federal, state and local agencies to make them more proactive, and less reactive. This too requires financial resources and accountability. We also need to modernize food safety statutes by replacing the existing collection of often conflicting laws and regulation with one uniform food safety law of the highest standard.

7.  There are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food in the US. We don’t need to impose the death penalty, as China did recently. But, we should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences, for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

8.  We need to use our technology to make food more traceable so that when an outbreak occurs authorities can quickly identify the source and limit the spread of the contamination and stop the disruption to the economy.

9.  Promote university research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination. Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety research and employee training.

10. Improve consumer understanding of the risks of foodborne illness.

In America in 2009 it is criminal that, according to the CDC, ever year nearly a quarter of our population is sickened, 350,000 hospitalized and 5,000 die, because they ate food. It is time to change that.