Obama in weekly address, discusses food safety, names head of F.D.A.

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — Calling the protection of the food supply "one of the most fundamental responsibilities (of) government," President Barack Obama on March 14 said his administration will take significant steps to enhance U.S. food safety.

The president spoke on the subject during the weekly video address from the White House. The speech, in which he named his choice of a new commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, was devoted to food issues even as the Obama administration pursues an ambitious agenda aimed at reversing the economic downturn and reforming the nation’s healthcare and education systems.

The speech also followed the introduction in Congress of three bills with bipartisan support to modernize and strengthen the food safety activities of the Food and Drug Administration.

Mr. Obama began his address by noting that the United States is "one of the safest places in the world" to buy groceries at a supermarket. In recent years, though, a number of problems have emerged, beginning with contaminated spinach in 2006, salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes in 2008 and illnesses and deaths from peanut products earlier this year, the president said.

"Worse, these incidents reflect a troubling trend that’s seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year — up from 100 a year in the early 1990s," Mr. Obama said. "Part of the reason is that many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt.

"It’s also because our system of inspection and enforcement is spread out so widely among so many people that it’s difficult for different parts of our government to share information, work together, and solve problems. And it’s also because the F.D.A. has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses each year. That means roughly 95% of them go uninspected."

Describing the status quo as "unacceptable," Mr. Obama said the situation would change. He announced that he was naming Margaret Hamburg as commissioner of the F.D.A. He also named Joshua Sharfstein as deputy commissioner.

"Their critical work and the critical work of the F.D.A. they lead will be part of a larger effort taken up by a new Food Safety Working Group I am creating," the president said. "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. And I expect this group to report back to me with recommendations as soon as possible."

Specific steps to enhance food safety detailed by Mr. Obama included spending one billion dollars to modernize laboratories and ensure that the F.D.A. is adequately staffed.

During the address, Mr. Obama repeated a comment he made last month on the NBC Today Show about how the peanut product recall touched him personally.

"In the end, food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your President, but as a parent," he said. "When I heard peanut products were being contaminated earlier this year, I immediately thought of my seven-year old daughter, Sasha, who has peanut butter sandwiches for lunch probably three times a week. No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch. Just as no family should have to worry that the medicines they buy will cause them harm. Protecting the safety of our food and drugs is one of the most fundamental responsibilities government has, and, with the outstanding team I am announcing today, it is a responsibility that I intend to uphold in the months and years to come."

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