Monday, March 23, 2009

Food for Thought - Food Safety

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - March 23, 2009
In the 2006 Texas Agriculture Commissioner's race, Hank Gilbert warned eveyone who would listen that lax inspections (responsiblity of the Texas Agriculture Commission) endangered the nation's foodchain. The US has stricter rules regarding pesticides and food production than do other countries who import food through the US/Texas border.

Little has improved in the Texas Agriculture Commission since Todd Staples became Agriculture Commissioner in 2007. Instead, the international spotlight has watched as the peanut industry tanked following contamination of peanuts processed in Texas and sold to industrial clients who manufactured many of the nations grocery products containing peanuts!

In Washington, the Obama administration is attempting to address some food safety issues. A Federal approach, without effective efforts on the state level on border states will not solve the problem. Hopefully, the Federal Food Safety taskforce, is a much over-due start.

Washington Post Editorial - Monday, March 23, 2009

The president appoints a working group to improve food safety.
SINCE 2006, the concept of food safety, as practiced by the federal government, has seemed oxymoronic. The recent concern about contaminated peanuts is but the latest in a series of food scares that included salmonella outbreaks involving tomatoes, peppers and spinach. With each occurrence, Congress thundered about the need to fix the way the nation safeguards its food supply, but little was done. Maybe more will happen now that President Obama has formed a Food Safety Working Group and selected a top-notch team to lead the Food and Drug Administration.

A congressional hearing on tainted peanuts last week unearthed more reasons for queasiness. The private inspection company hired by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) warned it of impending visits, giving the company plenty of time to tidy up what federal inspectors and others found during unannounced inspections: rat droppings, dead insects and rodents, and other unsanitary conditions. The troubles at PCA are symptoms of larger problems that need to be addressed.

Aside from increasing the number of federal inspectors and the frequency of visits they make to the country's nearly 150,000 food facilities, a number of good ideas are kicking around the Capitol. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) would give the FDA authority to issue mandatory recalls for contaminated food -- no more relying on the goodwill of businesses that might be tempted to put the bottom line above the public health -- and would require it to devise a system to trace food and produce from the farm to the dinner table. Legislation from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) would require companies to test for the hazards that are most likely to occur in their products and then have the federal government devise standards for what constitutes a hazard.

The Food Safety Working Group will include Margaret A. Hamburg and Joshua Sharfstein. Dr. Hamburg, a highly regarded former New York City health commissioner and assistant secretary for health and human services under President Bill Clinton, was tapped by Mr. Obama to be the next FDA commissioner. The president nominated Dr. Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, to be the FDA's principal deputy commissioner. Congress should move quickly to confirm them so they can get to work.
Read more in the Washington Post

Federal Inspectors Often Difficult to Reach, Group Says

By Ed O'Keefe - Washington Post Staff Writer - March 23, 2009

Federal inspectors general too often ignore or discount the complaints of whistleblowers, and concerned citizens attempting to report government waste or mismanagement may face difficulty making even basic contact with the offices via telephone or the Internet, according to a new report from a government watchdog group.

The report, released late last week by the independent Project on Government Oversight (POGO), revealed vast inconsistencies in the accessibility, design and ease of use of the Web sites of the inspector general offices. "Some of the largest departments have only the tiniest, faintest link to their IG's home page, while several very small and frankly obscure agencies have easily found links that jump off the agency home page," according to the report.

Many offices of the inspector general outsource their telephone hotlines, forfeiting a good deal of control over operators and the complaints they compile. When POGO staffers called the inspector general hotlines for the departments of Defense and Transportation, the same operator at a third-party call center answered the phone. "The hotline operators -- local college students, according to one IG who uses the service -- also simultaneously handle the hotlines for several private companies."

David Colapinto, general counsel with the National Whistleblowers Center, agreed with the report's findings and suggested lawmakers need to pay closer attention to the process.

"I think that when Congress appropriates more money and they hear these reports from the IGs, they think they're supporting whistleblowers and addressing the problem when they're really not," Colapinto said. "A lot more needs to be done in this area."

Many inspector general offices may have difficulty identifying serious hotline reports of waste, fraud and abuse because they are also alerted to minor complaints they cannot address. Kenneth Mead, who served as the Transportation Department inspector general from 1997 to 2006, recalled getting calls to his office about potholes in Maine.

"It's important that people have some place to vent, but you don't want real senior-level people handling calls like that," he said, adding that hotlines need better-trained staff members to effectively process legitimate, serious complaints.

The expanding workload of watchdogs at larger agencies may also be to blame for the short-shrifting of complaints. In addition to overseeing the work of tens of thousands of federal employees, some inspectors general are now responsible for tracking the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding from the economic recovery package.

This is the second annual report on inspectors general from POGO, and it includes feedback from most of the federal government's 64 investigative offices. Despite its criticisms, POGO gives generally favorable reviews to their overall mission and culture.

"This is not a broken system, but we do think there are new ways of thinking about IGs," said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian. "Everyone recognizes the importance of the job."
Read more in the Washington Post

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