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Statement

Release No. 0164.09
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AGRICULTURE SECRETARY VILSACK'S STATEMENTS AT FOOD SAFETY WORKING GROUP LISTENING SESSION

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2009 – USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack today attended and delivered opening remarks at the White House Food Safety Working Group Listening Session. The listening session included stakeholders representing a diverse range of organizations. Vilsack's remarks as prepared for delivery are included below:

Welcome. Thank you for taking time to join us this morning. I'd like to thank Tino Cuellar for his kind introduction.

It's also great to be joined today by our new Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. It should send a powerful message that HHS and USDA are appearing jointly today at a food safety event. We are both fully committed to enhancing coordination on food safety activities and I look forward to a strong relationship between our two agencies on this important issue.

Food Safety is of the highest concern for all of us here today. While Americans enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world, we have witnessed too many outbreaks that make us worry that the food on our dinner plate or in our child's lunch box will harm instead of nourish. This is simply not acceptable.

This is not a partisan issue. We all want safer food for our families. We are joined today by Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. It's important to note that much work has been done on Capitol Hill to advance bipartisan legislation.

Today is the beginning of a significant and critical process that will fully review the safety of our nation's food supply.

In March, President Obama announced the formation of the Food Safety Working Group and said in his radio address, "this working group will bring together cabinet secretaries and senior officials to advise me on how we can upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century, foster coordination throughout government and ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them."

President Obama has pledged his full support in this matter and has charged the Food Safety Working Group with examining all aspects of food safety - our statutes, our regulations, inter-agency coordination, and steps we can pursue administratively.

This issue will be one of USDA's highest priorities. We are currently reviewing all of our statutory authorities, as well as administrative and regulatory steps we can take, to ensure that our actions support public health and consumer safety to the fullest extent.

We are reviewing the Federal Meat Inspection Act, looking over our existing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point regulations, assessing our enforcement authorities, and examining at how we collect data. While we are doing a good job, we at USDA can always do better.

This Working Group has focused our attention on this critical issue and we will be working diligently to produce recommendations for the President in the coming months.

Today's Listening Session is an important component of our efforts. While we have assembled an impressive team here in the U.S. Government to review these issues, there are many experienced consumer advocates, Members of Congress, state officials, and industry leaders we need to hear from to shape these recommendations.

Today is an opportunity for you to weigh in on the process and tell us your priorities, to shape the proposals we submit to the President. Your voices must be heard for this document to reflect the most important food safety issues.

But, today is not the only opportunity you will have to shape this process. Today, we are launching the Food Safety Working Group website, www.foodsafetyworkinggroup.gov. The site will be updated with information and will include a comment submission feature that allows you to send feedback that will be reviewed by government officials. We hope to hear from you throughout this process.

I'd like to outline several specific challenges we need your input on. These are some of the most important food safety issues we've identified and that must be discussed in the context of comprehensive food safety reform.

  • Prevention. The key to a functioning food safety system is preventing foodborne illness. That means robust standards and sufficient authorities to prevent illnesses from occurring. Both FDA and USDA have embraced this principle and we must have a consistent approach.
  • Surveillance and Response. Our regulatory agencies must actively watch for disease outbreaks and take rapid action to ensure that we have effective and targeted recalls. Such recalls are in the interests of public health and the strength of industry sectors that might otherwise be tarnished by massive recalls.
  • Resources. As we all know, in this economy we do not have unlimited resources. We must ensure that we are allocating our food safety resources effectively and efficiently. That means focusing the most attention on the products that have the most potential to cause harm.
  • Coordination. All parts of the food safety system need to coordinate and work together in a seamless fashion. The Food and Drug Administration and USDA must do a better job of coordinating and I know that Secretary Sebelius and I will drive our agencies to improve coordination.
  • Plus, we must do a better job of coordinating among States and the Federal Government, and among industry and consumers. We can only solve this if all pieces are represented. It is time for us to set aside past frustrations, collaborate, and move forward together.
  • Metrics. Finally, we need to develop a way to measure our success. I am confident that by working together, we will make improvements to the safety of our food supply. But we need a way to track our progress both in the short and long term, so that we do not settle for merely okay, but continually strive for improvement. Lives are at stake and good is simply not good enough.

Thank you again for joining us today. I appreciate your commitment to food safety, and hope I can count on your insight and input in the weeks to come as the group moves forward.