WASHINGTON – The Obama administration took a first step toward modernizing the nation’s faltering system for protecting the food supply Tuesday, announcing new regulations to curb the spread of salmonella in eggs and naming a new food watchdog at the Food and Drug Administration.
Following on President Barack Obama’s pledge to modernize an underfunded and understaffed safety system that has failed to control outbreaks of food-borne illness, the FDA for the first time will begin regulating how most eggs are produced on U.S. farms.
The new system for monitoring eggs was coupled with other steps that the FDA and other federal agencies will take to give federal monitors more authority to prevent problems and more capacity to respond when outbreaks occur.
Nearly all egg producers with more than 3,000 laying hens – which account for the vast majority of eggs consumed by Americans – will be required to buy chicks from suppliers who monitor for salmonella bacteria.
In addition, producers will be required to test their poultry houses regularly, control pests and rodents and take steps to guard against bioterrorism threats.
And they will have to refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees Fahrenheit no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid.
The FDA estimates that the additional safety measures will cost the egg industry about $81 million a year but provide $1.4 billion in public health benefits, driven in large part by a projected 60 percent drop in the number of illnesses caused by contaminated eggs.
That translates into 79,000 fewer illnesses annually, according to the agency.
The Department of Agriculture, which has responsibility for regulating most meat production, is to develop new standards by the end of the year to reduce salmonella in turkey and poultry.
The agency is also stepping up its beef inspections to reduce the danger of E. coli, particularly in ground beef.
Michael R. Taylor, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services who has done extensive work on food safety issues, will become a senior adviser to the agency commissioner – giving the food safety unit a more prominent voice and greater access to senior agency officials.
And the administration plans to create a “unified incident command system” to coordinate a government response to future outbreaks of food-borne illness.
With recent food scares involving cookie dough, pistachios, peanut butter and peppers, there is growing consensus in Washington that major changes are needed in the way the federal government regulates foods. Particularly alarming to many policymakers and industry leaders, the recent outbreaks revealed weaknesses in the government’s ability to identify the source of contamination and to control it.
That has helped build bipartisan support for legislation to give new regulatory powers to the FDA, which oversees most food products but has little actual authority to mandate changes in the marketplace.
Bills sponsored by, among others, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., are pending in both chambers and might get votes later this summer.
Obama in March created a Food Safety Working Group that he promised would pave the way for broad food safety reforms. The working group Tuesday announced the new egg rule and other steps by the FDA and agriculture department.