Mr. President, today the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is holding a hearing to discuss the need to reform our Nation’s outdated, underfunded, and overwhelmed food safety system. The focus, of course, in Washington right now is on health care. I truly believe we need to get a health care reform bill passed, and I will speak at another time about Medicare costs which the Republican leader addressed. It is my view that if we don’t do anything to reform Medicare, we all know it is going in the red by 2017. We all know that if we continue the path we are following—if we don’t bring higher quality standards into Medicare at lower costs—that is not good for anyone. It is certainly not good for our seniors. So based on my health care experience in my State and knowing what our State needs, we want to have that high-quality, low-cost focus, and that is what we are working to do on this bill.
Today, I am here on another health matter; that is, the health of our food safety system. The hearing today and recent actions by the administration are good steps forward to ensure the safety of our food supply, but more must be done. The time to act is now. Why is the time to act now? Well, look at what has been going on.
In the past few months, the recalls of peanut products, spinach, and cookie dough have shaken our confidence and trust in the food we eat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, foodborne disease causes about 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.
Last fall, hundreds of people across the country fell ill from salmonella. In this case, the source was finally traced to a peanut processing plant in Georgia. In the meantime, nine people died from salmonella poisoning, including three people in my home State, the State of Minnesota.
The first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens. As Members of Congress, we must act quickly to pass tough new laws to strengthen our food system to ensure the health and safety of the American people. Americans spend more than $1 trillion on food every year, and when families go to the grocery store or out to eat or wherever they are going to get a bite to eat, they shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from the food they eat.
I have joined with a bipartisan group of Senators to introduce the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, which would overhaul the Federal Government’s food safety program. Other cosponsors include Dick Durbin, Judd Gregg, Richard Burr, Chris Dodd, Lamar Alexander, and Saxby Chambliss. I wish to particularly thank Senator Durbin for his long-time leadership on this issue.
Whenever contaminated food is allowed to reach consumers, public trust in the integrity of our food supply and the effectiveness of our government is undermined. Think about it. The three people who died in Minnesota, one was an elderly woman at a nursing home. She was in perfectly good shape. She had a little piece of toast with peanut butter. That was it, a little piece of toast with peanut butter. In talking to her son, I learned so much about her and what a courageous woman she was. She ate one piece of toast with peanut butter.
This bill will give the Food and Drug Administration the tools and authority for better inspections and a more responsive recall system. The bill will also improve our capacity to prevent foodborne outbreaks by helping food companies develop a national strategy to protect our food supply and allow the FDA greater access to facility records in a food safety emergency.
Currently, the FDA does not have the resources to conduct annual inspections at the more than 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses in the country. Our bill requires annual inspections at facilities that pose the greatest risk to the American public and will go a long way toward ensuring the protection of our Nation’s food supply. Think of it. Something such as a peanut butter facility, they don’t think they are ever going to be inspected, no one is going to be looking, so they don’t have that incentive every year to improve their food processing capability. They don’t have that incentive. They don’t worry that anyone is watching over their shoulder because they are not.
This bill also takes steps to improve our capacity to detect and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks, but I believe there is still more that can and should be done. That is why, along with Senator Chambliss, I have introduced the Food Safety Rapid Response Act.
This legislation focuses on the Centers for Disease Control, as well as State and local capability for responding to foodborne illnesses. The recent outbreaks demonstrate that there needs to be better coordination when responding to a food safety crisis. This legislation seeks to make these much needed improvements.
In the case of both the jalapeno pepper outbreak last year and the peanut butter outbreak earlier this year, people had been getting sick for months before an advisory was issued. The breakthrough in identifying the sources of contamination didn’t come from the Centers for Disease Control. Neither did the jalapeño pepper case, identified first as tomatoes, or the peanut butter case. It didn’t come from the CDC or from the FDA, and it didn’t come from the National Institutes of Health.
The breakthrough in both outbreaks came from the work of the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, as well as collaborative efforts with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. This initiative has earned a remarkable national reputation.
The Food Safety Response Act uses the exceptional work done in Minnesota as a national model for food safety. Why does someone have to get sick or die in Minnesota before a national outbreak is solved? They have a team of graduate students who work together under the supervision of the university and the department of health. They, together, figure out what is wrong. They make the calls together. They are like food detectives. Some people have called them “team diarrhea.” They figure out what is wrong, what goes on in other States. Sometimes a report in an individual county sits on a busy nurse’s desk and they don’t follow up on it for weeks and we are never able to piece together that information that figures out and solves the source of the outbreak.
This bill would direct the CDC to enhance their foodborne surveillance systems to improve the collection, analysis, reporting, and usefulness of data on foodborne systems, including better sharing of information among Federal, State, and local agencies, as well as with the food industry and the public.
Second, it would direct the CDC to work with State-level agencies to improve foodborne illness surveillance.
Finally, this legislation would establish food safety centers of excellence. The goal is to set up regional food safety centers at select public health departments and higher education institutions. These collaborations would provide increased resources, training, and coordination for State and local officials. In particular, they would seek to distribute food safety “best practices” so other States can figure out how they can do this better so every food outbreak doesn’t need to have someone get sick or die in Minnesota before it gets solved.
Think about it. The two recent food outbreaks only got solved in one State. We have to use that model nationally.
Dr. Osterholm, at the University of Minnesota, is a national food safety expert and is credited with the creation of the Minnesota program. He said the creation of regional programs modeled on Minnesota “would go a long way to providing precisely the real-time support for outbreak investigations at the State and local levels that is sorely needed.”
At today’s hearing, the Food Marketing Institute stated that the Food Safety Response Act would “better coordinate foodborne illness surveillance systems and better support State laboratories in outbreak investigations with needed expertise.”
In Minnesota, we also have the benefit of working with strong leaders in the food industry, including SuperValu, Hormel, General Mills, and Schwann’s. Their leadership has helped set national standards for food safety and response to foodborne outbreaks. Public and private collaboration is essential to improving our food safety response system.
The annual costs of medical care, lost productivity, and premature death due to foodborne illness is estimated to be $44 billion. There is a lot at stake—both in terms of life and money. I believe we can do better.
As a former prosecutor, I have always believed the first responsibility of a government is to protect its citizens. When people get sick or die from contaminated food, the government must take aggressive and immediate action.
Congress must improve the FDA and bring it into the 21st century. I believe, together, the Food Safety Rapid Response Act and Food Safety Modernization Act, which I have introduced with Senator Chambliss, will strengthen food safety in our country and ultimately save both lives and money. We owe it to the American people to act quickly and pass this legislation.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.