Public health policy and food protection are issues that we expect the new Obama administration to address eagerly. Financial problems, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Home Land Security have shifted focus away from our core public health agenda, and now is the time to return our focus. Everyone agrees that public health programs have suffered in the last eight years. Keep in mind, however, that public health protection is possible in the US more so than in many places around the world. We have public health infrastructure, a little decrepit, but still there.
The new administration should take an accounting of what is on the ground now, what is working and what is not, and develop a comprehensive plan of action similar to the "President’s Food Safety Initiative" of 1998. Safety-net type programs that were instituted like PulseNet and FoodNet are now very valuable. If the new administration is wise, it will invest in these and other types of surveillance programs and set meaningful public health goals. Most importantly, the new administration must implement strategies to achieve its goals based on science and a risk assessment.
The Obama team should develop true partnerships where government and industry equally share the burdens of food protection. One possible way to do this is to strengthen the existing industry-driven, self-regulation model. The Obama administration can accomplish this through better federal agency oversight and verification of the entire food supply chain. Presently, there are major gaps in federal regulation of the US food supply that weaken industry efforts.
Applying technology is a quick way to move forward rapidly. For example, the food industry is applying sophisticated food safety data capture devices in their food safety management systems. Programs are built into common platforms that run on the I Phone and PDA of a wide assortment. Data is also transmitted through the Internet to database management systems that track and analyze data. Tapping into the resources of industry food-safety professionals and the available technology can definitely strengthen public health protection.
“One big agency” to bring all regulation for the food supply under one umbrella is a compelling thought that the Obama team must evaluate. The new administration should consider first, however, how to enhance what is already functioning. There may be some advantages in combining some functions of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Without question, the new administration should call for more coordination and better allocation of resources in both USDA and FDA, and then properly fund these agencies to meet the administration’s public health goals. The last administration failed to recognize that our agencies have been less than capable in managing the risks in the US food supply. This administration should first honestly evaluate the successes and failures of current public health policies as regards food safety and other pressing matters and then lead us forward.
We recommend that the administration seriously look at the Office of the Surgeon General, and strengthen the role of the nation’s "Chief Health Officer". The Surgeon General has not voiced any support for food safety efforts since he last spoke out publically on the issue, back in 1999. This vastly underutilized post should come to the fore under President Obama. We should expect the Surgeon General’s Office to take initiatives in the interest of public health to elicit more support and involvement in food safety from the medical and public health communities, and to speak to the American people about food protection.