Thursday, February 5, 2009

Opening statement - Sen. Tom Harkin at Senate Ag Commitee on federal food safety oversight

From the office of Sen. Tom Harkin this morning;

“Good morning. I welcome everyone to the Committee.

“Forgive me, but I’m going to skip the niceties and get right to the point. I am nothing short of outraged at the increasing number of outbreaks of food-borne illness in this country. Everything from spinach and lettuce to beef products and, now, peanut products has been implicated. Within the last year, we had the biggest recall ever under USDA jurisdiction. And just in the last month, with the recall of peanut products from the Peanut Corporation of America, we had one of the largest recalls ever under FDA jurisdiction.

“To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit. Food safety in America has too often become a hit-or-miss gamble, and that is truly frightening. When Americans can’t count on the safety of basic items that go into our children’s lunch boxes, then we are in big trouble.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness annually in the U.S., resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Those statistics would be disturbing anywhere in the world. They are totally intolerable in the United States of America.

“Reducing the instances of food-borne illness in this country means examining every step in the food safety process.

“Our systems for tracing tainted products and removing them from commerce must be stronger, better coordinated, faster, and more efficient. Regardless of the level of contamination, we need to be able to identify the source accurately, promptly, and act quickly.

“As in all of health care, prevention of the illness is the key. Prevention is much less costly than the treatment. We must focus on getting the food safety done right in the first place, before the pathogens get into the food.

“Bear in mind that this is both a health issue – and it is also an economic issue. It is inevitable that demand for the food crop involved in the outbreak will fall sharply. During a recall, retailers lose business, processors lose customers, and – as our Ranking Member, Senator Chambliss knows all too well – farmers suffer as well. Entire communities can face economic devastation.

“We have got to come up with a better, smarter approach to food safety. We have got to make the investments both in better systems, and in putting more inspectors on the ground. This is about the integrity of our food supply. And it is about the health and wellness of our people.

“So our goal, this morning, is to explore what went wrong, and what we need to do to get things right. We have a distinguished panel of witnesses. I look forward to your best counsel as to how we can do a far better job of preventing outbreaks . . . and, when outbreaks happen, how we can do a better job of stopping them very early on before they spread.

“With that, I will now turn to Ranking Member Chambliss for his opening remarks.”

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