(July 17, 11:58 a.m.) Lawmakers and the U.S. Government Accountability Office added to the chorus of industry and consumer groups calling for an examination of the Food and Drug Administration’s handling of the salmonella outbreak investigation and reform to the nation’s food safety oversight.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, sent a letter July 15 to Michael Leavitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He called on the FDA to initiate an effective traceback system for produce implicated in outbreaks, based on existing authority under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.

Harkin also called on better communication between federal agencies, state officials and industry representatives. He said the FDA didn’t reach out effectively to industry or the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the early stages of the investigation.

“USDA, the federal department that has the most contact with our nation’s agriculture producers, has been woefully underutilized throughout the entire outbreak process,” Harkin wrote.

What’s more, Harkin called into question the techniques used in the investigation and the continued warnings against consumption of some tomatoes.

“It does not make sense why there remains a strong warning against eating certain fresh tomatoes when most states have been cleared by FDA as having produced tomatoes not implicated in the salmonella outbreak,” Harkin wrote.

Industry leaders said the letter gave voice to many of the concerns about the salmonella investigation.

“We like the letter,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. “It is what we have been saying.”

Joseph Comito, president of Capital City Fruit Co. Inc., Norwalk, Iowa, said he has tried to keep Harkin’s office updated about tomato industry concerns about the investigation.

“Tom, being head of the Senate Agriculture Committee, really took off on the idea that (FDA) didn’t work with USDA,” he said. “It’s a prime example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.”

Guenther said there have been numerous discussions between industry lobbyists and Congress about what lawmakers can do to help the FDA.

“We think the effort is going in the right direction,” he said. While Congress may put some kind of mechanism in place to encourage traceback or traceability, United Fresh is steering lawmakers to create broad direction and allow for industry initiatives to continue.

“Effective traceback is something the industry can accomplish,” Guenther said.

Guenther said ideas are being explored that aim to provide the industry with federal funding to help move ahead with traceability solutions, much like the animal identity program has extended help to livestock producers.

Oversight consolidation?

Meanwhile, the GAO report, requested after the spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006 by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., evaluated countries that already have in place a single food safety authority and compared their performance with the U.S., which has 12 federal agencies and 35 laws on governmental oversight of food safety.

Durbin and DeLauro have introduced the ambitiously reform-minded Safe Food Act in the last two sessions of Congress. That legislation would consolidate all food safety activities into a single agency.

Both lawmakers said the GAO study supported their goals for a single food agency. GAO was asked to describe how Canada, the European Union, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom ensure the safety of imported food, respond to outbreaks and measure the effectiveness of their reorganized food safety systems.

“Not only does the report outline the critical components that are necessary for an effective food safety system — traceback procedures, cooperative arrangements between public health officials and mandatory recall authority — it also demonstrates that these measures can be implemented seamlessly under a system governed by a single food safety agency,” DeLauro said in a statement about the report.

Guenther said United Fresh does not have a position on the issue of reforming food safety oversight and consolidating functions into one agency. Some food safety laws haven’t been reformed in 100 years, but he said the political challenges in moving ahead with wholesale reform to federal food safety oversight are substantial.

Senator, GAO call for more effective traceback
Harkin