Bemidji Pioneer
Bemidji Pioneer Editorial Board
February 4, 2009

The breadth and depth of the most recent food scare should provide enough impetus to urgently seek new ways to ensure food safety practices in the United States.

In the new peanut butter fiasco, eight people have died — including three in Minnesota — and more than 500 people sickened in at least 43 states of salmonella traced to peanut butter and peanut paste produced at one plant in Georgia. That one plant had previous problems that should have been found and correctly much earlier.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., urged President Barack Obama in a letter Monday to take action.

 “The first responsibility of a government is to protect its citizens,” Klobuchar wrote. “Ensuring that Americans have safe food is a basic issue of public safety, health and consumer protection. Wherever contaminated food is allowed to reach consumers, public trust in the integrity of our food supply and the effectiveness of our government is undermined.”

The Food and Drug Administration has been lax in responding to recent crises involving food safety, much it because the FDA is ill-equipped. The Government Accountability Office identified oversight of food safety as one of the top 10 high-risk areas that should command attention and action.

Klobuchar cites a number of GAO suggestions, which include greater coordination and streamlining of responsibilities among federal agencies; more resources for the FDA’s food safety activities; added authority to order mandatory recalls; more effective prevention of food-borne illnesses with tougher standards and more inspections; improved food-born illness detection and response; and better federal coordination with state and local agencies.

Most, but not all, of the problems have occurred in the processing of food. Farmers and ranchers take great care that the food they grow and livestock they raise leave the farm as safe as possible. Greater steps need to be taken for that food as it is processed en mass. It is a tragedy that unsafe food from one plant can cripple the nation in that commodity. The peanut problem has caused more than 800 product recalls.

The federal government needs to bolster its efforts for food safety, including more regulation and inspection of food processing. Hopefully, President Obama will take action on Sen. Klobuchar’s letter to restore confidence by the American public about the U.S. food supply.