On May 31st, I have the opportunity to host Senator Durbin in Seattle – here is why I would – Great editorial from the pages of the Chicago Tribune:

Durbin and the ‘food czar’

Used to be that the word “czar” conjured up images of dashing Russian royals and their glamorous trappings — Faberge eggs and glittering jewels.

These days, though, “czar” has morphed into Washington shorthand for a government job with a flashy title but little authority.

So it’s appropriate that some people are sneeringly referring to the new senior position created by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the “food safety czar.”

The new assistant commissioner for food protection, Dr. David Acheson, is charged with guarding against hazards in the food supply. But there is no new muscle behind the title. The food czar has no authority to order a recall of a tainted food product. That, by current rules, is left to the food manufacturers. That can put manufacturers in a tough spot, given the high cost of a recall.

Congress is working to change that. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced an amendment — it passed last week on a 94-0 vote — to the FDA reauthorization bill.

Durbin’s amendment includes promising changes: creating a database of adulterated foods, allowing the FDA to better monitor patterns of problems and better target its scarce inspection dollars; requiring companies to improve their record-keeping, so that key documents are readily available in the case of a food emergency; and drafting uniform standards to govern the pet food industry, instead of relying on a hodgepodge of state regulations. The issue of giving the FDA the power to order recalls will be taken up by the Senate later this year.

The safety of our nation’s food supply was called into question recently when pet food ingredients imported from China turned out to be tainted, sickening and killing animals. It’s disturbing that the dangerous melamine also made its way into the human food supply when it was used as feed for 3 million chickens raised on Indiana poultry farms.

Last year, spinach contaminated with a toxic strain of E. coli affected consumers in different parts of the country. And five years ago, according to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. followed the lead of the European Union and temporarily suspended imports of honey from China after it tested positive for a widely banned antibiotic.

By 2006, however, the U.S. was importing $27.3 million worth of honey from China. All told, China said it sent $3.8 billion worth of food exports to the U.S. last year, everything from sausage casings to canned mushrooms to apple juice. As more of our food — human and animal — is processed at fewer but bigger sources, the FDA needs the vigilance, competence and power to act quickly if it sees a problem somewhere in the supply chain.

Many food industry officials aren’t opposed to that. Some food producers are among the most vocal advocates of increasing FDA funding. They would even support giving the FDA the power to force recalls. After all, they have a financial stake in maintaining consumer confidence in their products.

As Durbin and his counterpart in the House, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), lead the way toward improving our nation’s food supply, they should draw on the expertise of industry and food safety scientists to create a set of laws that are workable, efficient and effective.

The more robust FDA being proposed by Durbin and DeLauro would be better able not just to monitor food safety, but also to respond quickly when that safety is compromised. And it would give Acheson at least a small sliver of the power, if not the pageantry, befitting a czar.