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Government agencies tout food safety efforts – but experts warn over budget cuts

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 22-Dec-2011

President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) has made significant progress, reporters were told in a conference call on Wednesday – while a separate study suggested budget cuts were having an impact on food safety.

Officials from the department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled the report on the FSWG’s progress, citing guidance on produce safety; the setting up of tracking systems, including the Reportable Food Registry; and the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as recent areas of success.

“The passage of FSMA is one of the most significant accomplishments in the history of food safety in the United States . It was passed on a bi-partisan basis with support from a broad coalition of industry, consumer and public health groups and is grounded in the same principles that the FSWG embraced in its 2009 report,” it said.

Among other achievements, the agencies also highlighted the Food and Drug Administration’s Egg Safety Rule, which was implemented in 2010; the creation of the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA) to develop training courses and materials on preventing food contamination; and progress at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in estimating foodborne illness, and reduced rates of E. coli.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said: "The best way to ensure food safety is by building prevention into our food safety system, and we will take another step in that direction when the FDA Food and Drug Administration issues proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act."

The working group was set up by President Obama in the wake of the salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products, which killed nine and sickened hundreds of others in 2009.

Budget cuts hit food safety

Meanwhile, a new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health released this week claimed that state and federal budget cuts were reversing improvements in US preparedness for foodborne illness outbreaks and other emergencies.

"We're seeing a decade's worth of progress eroding in front of our eyes," said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health.

The report’s authors said that budget cuts on a combined federal, state and local level mean that basic facilities for preparedness at many public health departments could be at risk.

State public health funds were cut in 40 states and Washington, D.C. in the past year, they wrote, with 29 of those experiencing cuts for the second year in a row, and 15 for the third year in a row. On a federal level, the President’s proposed budget for FY 2012 represents $72m in cuts for Public Health Emergency Preparedness funding.

"Preparedness had been on an upward trajectory, but now some of the most elementary capabilities - including the ability to identify and contain outbreaks, provide vaccines and medications during emergencies, and treat people during mass traumas - are experiencing cuts in every state across the country,” Levi said.

Among other recommendations, the report endorsed coordinating food safety with other preparedness efforts as the Food Safety Modernization Act is implemented.

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