Food Industry Lobbying Linked to Salmonella Search Debacle

According to an Associated Press report, Representative Bart Stupak—Democrat-Michigan—is calling on the food industry to stop opposition to electronic record-keeping and back an effective system for tracing contaminated food to its source. “It is my hope that the food industry will drop its opposition to these common-sense safeguards and move forward with implementation,” said Stupak, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigative subcommittee.

Since January 2007, Stupak has been conducting an ongoing investigation into the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ability to protect the country’s food and drug supply.  Stupak is also chairing a hearing next week on the current outbreak of <"">Salmonella, considered one of the nation’s worst in years.  “This latest salmonella outbreak has shown us that it is necessary to have electronic record-keeping and trace-back systems in order to quickly detect the source of food-borne illnesses,” Stupak said.

According to interviews and government reports, years ago, the food industry pressured the Bush administration to limit the paperwork companies would have to keep to help U.S. health investigators trace tainted produce.  Worse, the White House crushed plans requiring the industry to maintain electronic tracking records because it complained the proposals were too troublesome and expensive, adding that the proposals could disrupt the availability of consumers’ favorite foods, especially fresh produce.  The result has been a recent and ongoing rash of foodborne illnesses that have increased in severity and scope.  Representative John Dingell, Democrat-Michigan, and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, feels the industry has brought on its own troubles, “The food industry is learning the hard way that having a strong FDA and commonsense regulation makes good financial sense,” he said.

Under pressure in 2003-2004, the White House agreed to reduce record-keeping proposals by FDA safety experts.  According to the AP, during this time, government records indicate business groups “met at least 10 times with the White House” and lobbyists were able to stop convince the government that improved food safety plans would cost businesses with the unnecessary and expensive regulations,  The lobbyists were successful and their efforts have left us with a paper record-keeping system that has slowed investigators; have cost businesses about $250 million in losses; and have sickened about 1,300 people in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada in just this one Salmonella outbreak that has been active since April.  “If the FDA had been given the resources and authority years ago that it requested to solve these kinds of problems, I think we would have solved this already,” said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner.  The proposed rules “were significantly watered down before they became final,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest—the group obtained the White House meeting records under the Freedom of Information Act and provided them to the AP.

Tommy Thompson, health secretary during the lobbying campaign, agreed a stronger tracking system could have helped with current illnesses and business losses.   “We went in with the larger package but knew we had to compromise,” Thompson told the AP.

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