President Obama was quoted this morning:
“At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter,” Obama told [Matt] Lauer in the interview, which was conducted Sunday at the White House.
Although we’re in the middle of a desperate food borne disease outbreak, that’s has sickened over 500, hospitalized 125 and killed eight, US Food Safety is in a twilight zone right now. There’s no FDA head, there’s no CDC head, and there’s simply an acting FSIS head. The government approach to food safety issues in the last five decades has grown increasingly confused and confusing; it’s been clear for years that the system is no longer working. But each time there’s a new foodborne disease outbreak, we try to use the same system to get different results. Now that we have a new president and a new Administration, it’s time to do things very differently. No one has better illustrated how to rapidly create real change than President Obama, so let’s take some ideas directly from the Presidential Play Book and apply these to making our kid’s food safe.
President Obama was elected with an unprecedented coalition of voters that transcended age, race, income, gender, and class. The Grass Roots campaign had a huge impact on the election at every level, and there are two kinds of grass roots campaigns that will be enormously effective for changing food safety in the US.
1. The Citizen Grass Roots campaign: Improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness, and create a popular campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Citizen Food Coalition, which would use consumer power to promote a no-tolerance policy toward growers and companies that produce tainted food.
2. The Professional Grass Roots Campaign: Proper food safety monitoring begins in the local health professional community, too. By the time it’s caught the attention of Federal authorities, it’s too late—there’s already a large outbreak. The most important thing we can do to stop large outbreaks at the initial cases is to improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders – ER physicians and local doctors – need to be encouraged to routinely test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly, at the first sign of questionable symptoms—diarrhea, vomiting, fever. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped.
3. The Team of Rivals: Local, state and federal health agencies need to be encouraged to work 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.
4. Utilize Social and Digital Media – Exploit cutting edge Technology: President Obama utilized social and digital media in ways that were unprecedented for an electoral campaign, and the health and food safety community can learn a huge lesson from this. We need to get the message out rapidly when there is an outbreak, and equally importantly, we need to use all technology available to track and monitor products before outbreaks occur. How about an iphone app that instantly tells you if the food you’re about to purchase is on a recall list? Those interested in sustainability in seafood have created the Fish Phone, which instantly tells you if the fish you’re about to order is on a watch list for contamination or for environmental problems. Why not apply this same technology to food safety? President Obama uses youtube, email, twitter, radio, TV, podcasts, and streaming video to get his message out, and there’s no reason the food safety community can’t take advantage of this, too. When an outbreak occurs, authorities can quickly identify the source and limit the spread of the contamination, as well as stop the disruption to the economy.
5. Training and Education: In order to work for President Obama, candidates are required to fill out an twenty-two page application, get letters of recommendation, interview, and, in some cases, provide full disclosure of their financial histories. We need the same strict, transparent standards to apply to those who work in food safety, and we need to go one step further: Our food safety workers need to be trained—and licensed–to do what they are doing. There need to be comprehensive licensing requirements for large farm, manufacturing, wholesale and retail food outlets, so that nobody gets a license until they and their employees have shown they understand food safety hazards and how to avoid them at every point of the processing timeline.
6. The economic stimulus element: Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety interventions and employee training.
7. The Education element of the stimulus package: University research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination.
8. President Obama has addressed terrorism issues since the Inauguration: We need a new emphasis on revamping homeland security, as well as changing the way international terrorism is dealt with. It’s time to start thinking about this issue from a food safety standpoint; 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.
9. Lastly, we can’t overlook the legal issues in food safety: As a lawyer, President Obama is very aware of the incentives that legal consequences provide for changing behavior. Right now there are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.
The time has come to pay attention and act and not continue simply to react. Consumers, Farmers, Suppliers, Manufacturers, Retailers, Regulators and Politicians need to work together to make our food supply safe, profitable and sustainable. When a quarter of our population is sickened yearly by contaminated food, when thousands die, we do not have the “safest food supply in the world. We should, must and can do better.