by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Consumer and food safety groups recently had the chance to sit down with new Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack. During the campaign, the Secretary had made some important pro-consumer statements, including supporting the creation of a single agency for food safety—something consumer groups have spent a decade working for. After a rash of recalls on everything from contaminated spinach, raspberries, beef, peanut butter, pet food and just this week, pistachios contaminated with salmonella, it has become clear that our food safety system is in need of an overhaul.
Gathering in a beautiful, old conference room in the Agriculture Department’s Whitten Building on the National Mall, the consumer groups and Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, talked about his principles of governing: transparency, participation, and collaboration. He also talked about his close relationship with the incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, current Governor of Kansas. In her role as head of HHS, Sebelius will oversee the work of the Food and Drug Administration and it’s important that these two food safety watchdogs can work together.
The FDA oversees the safety of 80 percent of our food supply, including produce, while the Department of Agriculture regulates 20 percent, including meat, poultry, and eggs. Altogether 20-some separate federal agencies have some responsibility for food safety. Funding for FDA, however, has so diminished in recent years that imported fruits and vegetables have about a 1 percent chance of getting inspected at the border. Domestic produce farms and growers are likely to be inspected only once every 5 years.
Vilsack mostly listened as our consumer groups—including Nancy Donley of S.T.O.P. (Safe Tables Our Priority), whose only child died from eating a fast food hamburger infected with E. coli and has been a food safety activist ever since—talked about including consumer representatives in the Food Safety Working Group, which President Obama has pledged to create, and other issues.
For me, the importance of this meeting lay in the Secretary of Agriculture looking around the table at the 17 people in our meeting who represent the interests of millions of consumers. After this discussion, I think Secretary Vilsack better understands who we are and that consumer groups will need to have a seat at the table—and will play a critical role—in the new Administration’s initiatives on food safety and consumer protection.