*Tainted eggs - Teachable Moment in Agriculture
August 25, 2010: Morning Edition National Public

To listen to the story:

The recall of a half-billion eggs after more than a thousand Americans have
fallen ill from salmonella has some politicians and consumer advocates
pushing for the first major overhaul of food safety laws in more than 70
years. Now, after languishing in Congress, some proposals to toughen the
laws are in the spotlight.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who has been working for decades to address
the holes she sees in the nation's food safety system, says this recall
should set off alarms.

"You saw what happened with tomatoes, you saw what happened with lettuce,
with peanuts, and now eggs," she says. And government officials say that
just since May, there have been four times as many salmonella outbreaks
detected as would normally be expected.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), shown last month in Washington, D.C., has
long pushed for toughening food safety laws.

"You've got over half a billion eggs recalled, 1,300 people are sick. We're
not talking about roads, bridges, parks here. We are really talking about
people's health," she says. And a bill that passed the House of
Representatives over a year ago, which DeLauro was a key sponsor of, might
have helped limit the damage, she says.

The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration more inspectors and
more power to examine producers' operations and records. It would also give
the agency more power to quickly trace the source of a product suspected of
causing illness  and the power to force a recall. DeLauro says the FDA
needs that power to take food off the market before there's a crisis.

"Most people are incredibly shocked that the FDA does not already have the
authority to do this," says Ami Gadhia of Consumers Union. Right now, the
FDA can't force a recall, she says  it only requests that companies take
food off the market. And that means it can take weeks of negotiations before
a recall can be issued.

The House bill would give FDA the power to recall and more, she says: "It's
going to give FDA additional resources, and it's going to give the agency
the ability to staff up in ways that get at preventing foodborne illnesses
before they happen."

Preventing outbreaks is also a goal of a similar bill  in the Senate. But
the bill has been stalled for over a year now, waiting for a vote.

"The Senate has had in front of it a number of tremendous priorities  the
health care reform bill has gone through the Senate, the financial reform
bill has gone through the Senate  and we think this is a bill that deserves
that same sort of attention and prioritization," Gadhia says.

It's not just the consumer advocates who want a food safety bill. The food
industry generally supports it, too, says Robert Guenther of the United
Fresh Produce Association.

"The main reason is, we need to make sure that there's a strong consumer
confidence that the produce they're eating is safe and viable," he says.

The bill has significant support from both Democrats and Republicans, but
some critics say it doesn't go far enough. It's directed only at the FDA.
But as Gadhia points out, there are more than a dozen federal agencies and
state and local agencies, too, that are responsible for different aspects of
food safety. Eggs are just one example.

"FDA has the authority over shell eggs that you buy in those cartons at the
grocery store," she says. But for the chickens themselves and the eggs that
are cracked open before shipping  "that is under the jurisdiction of USDA,"
Gadhia says.

Complicating it further, the food processed into egg-containing products,
like cookies, cakes and lasagna, are regulated, again, by the FDA.

Gadhia and others say what's really needed is a single food safety agency.
But that's not what's on the table right now. A spokesman for the Senate
majority leader says the Senate may turn to the FDA food safety bill after
it returns from summer break.

Dr. Teri Hamlin
North Region Agriculture Education
Georgia Department of Education
204C Four Towers University of Georgia
Athens, Ga 30602
706-552-4461 / 706-540-0032
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