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What's Needed to Protect Our Nation's Food Supply

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The White House's Food Safety Working Group's public-health-focused approach to food safety signals a new day when it comes to protecting our nation's food supply. By enhancing prevention, strengthening enforcement, and improving response, the Obama administration is taking the needed steps to beef up our ailing system. And after years of neglect and countless recalls, both Congress and the White House are finally reforming and updating our food safety system.

The salmonella scare of 2008 left almost 1500 people across 43 states sick -- with tomatoes first incorrectly suspected as the culprit and jalapeños in Mexico later identified to be the source. Earlier this year, nine people died and thousands were sickened as a result of tainted peanut butter. And most recently, meat from my home state of Colorado was pulled from store shelves. The cavalcade of recalls leads one to ask: What outbreak will be next? More importantly, how can we prevent it?

After each crisis and subsequent recall, it has become glaringly clear that our food safety system is broken. It is a woefully underfunded system designed during the latter half of the 20th century that has failed to adapt to our 21st century marketplace. The Food and Drug Administration and our other food safety agencies require enforceable powers to protect consumers from tainted foods, including the authority to recall, locate, and prevent outbreaks altogether.

Individual companies now have the voluntary responsibility of recalling their own products. While many companies have acted properly and swiftly to recall contaminated goods, the delay between the identification of tainted foods and the company's decision to recall those foods leads to the needless sickness of too many Americans. Many are shocked to learn that the FDA does not have the authority to force a recall. In the recent contaminated peanut butter outbreak, for example, the fact that the company in question suspected its product was tainted and yet refused to act on that knowledge serves as a potent reminder that giving the FDA mandatory recall authority is critical.

To complement mandatory recall authority, the FDA must also have the capacity to trace tainted foods from the field to the fork. During the salmonella outbreak in 2008, for example, officials were eventually able to track the contaminated jalapeños to an individual sector of a specific field in Mexico. In the meantime though, the tomato industry was decimated because it was first suspected to be the cause of contamination. With traceability, we could have quickly identified the specific tainted jalapeños as the offending vegetable and moved to contain the outbreak before it spread across the country. By allowing us to isolate outbreaks and avoid unnecessary recalls of safe foods, the ability to trace foods through every point in the supply chain is a vital component that serves the interests of not only consumers but also businesses looking to protect their bottom lines.

The Obama administration's support for the goals of its working group is a crucial first step. However, statutory changes are also needed to fully reform our food safety system. It is now Congress' turn to act by granting our food safety agencies new authorities that can endure the growing demands of our system. Among these authorities, the FDA must also have increased funding and more inspectors in order for the agency to adequately monitor the process whereby food arrives on our dinner tables each night. By giving the FDA adequate resources and authority to both prevent outbreaks and intervene once they appear, we can support the administration's efforts to reassure the parents of America that the food they feed their children is the product of the safest system in the world.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), serving her 7th term as the representative for Colorado's First Congressional District, is vice chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. This op-ed is cross posted with The Mission Ahead, Roll Call's online policy forum.

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