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New guidelines for food safety may be the last opportunity for the industry

10 July 2009 836 views No Comment

Americans shouldn’t have to worry whether their food is safe to eat.

Of late, however, that’s become a valid concern. From the massive salmonella outbreak in peanuts to the recall of cookie dough, the safety of the food chain in the United States is certainly suspect.

Several factors are involved.

First and foremost, the federal government has cut back on inspections and turned many duties over to food manufacturers on the assumption that it is in their best interests to self-regulate themselves. But all it takes are a few rogues, such as the company responsible for the peanut-related salmonella outbreak, to undermine the entire process.

Second, food processing has gone national (and international) on a massive scale. Ground beef is a good example of this. In the not-too-distant past, local grocery stores ground their own beef. Now, it is manufactured and processed in plants and then shipped to markets across the country. As a result, outbreaks of food poisoning from one source can occur in many parts of the country.

Third, as a cost-cutting measure, few food manufacturers control the production process from start to finish, thereby making it harder to maintain quality control. Again, the peanut company provides a good example of this. Its products were bought by major candy and ice cream manufacturers that assumed they were purchasing safe ingredients (and/or didn’t ask too many questions because the price was right).

On Tuesday, the Obama administration introduced new safety standards that are aimed at reducing salmonella and E. coli outbreaks.

The steps are bureaucratic — establishing better tracking systems, getting the federal agencies that regulate food safety to communicate better and creating new positions to better oversee food safety — and regulatory — establishing new standards for egg and poultry producers, stepping up the sampling of ground beef ingredients and stricter standards for producers of leafy greens, melons and tomatoes.

This might be the last chance for the food industry to police itself. If food producers, from the smallest truck farm to the largest agribusiness, won’t protect the American people, their government must.

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