Food safety a top priority: U.S. lawmaker

WASHINGTON Wed Mar 18, 2009 2:15pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Food safety is a top priority and U.S. Congress is poised to give greater authority to the Food and Drug Administration which has been roiled by a series of food recalls and consumer deaths, an influential House lawmaker said on Wednesday.

"There is an urgency that we move on strong food-safety reform. It is a high priority in Congress," Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of a House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA, said at the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit in Washington.

"I'm optimistic that this could finally be the Congress in which we deal with this."

The latest recall, the largest in U.S. history, has sickened about 700 people after they ate peanut products contaminated with salmonella. As many as nine people have died and more than 3,000 food products, from crackers to ice cream, have been recalled.

The peanut product recall has renewed already vociferous calls for the FDA's food oversight duties to be strengthened, and several committees in Congress are examining ways to do this.

Connecticut Democrat DeLauro, a longtime critic of FDA's food oversight, has proposed a bill that would create the Food Safety Administration and put an emphasis on preventing food contamination.

Her proposal also would give FDA mandatory recall authority, implement traceability and increase penalties for companies knowingly selling a tainted product.

"Unfortunately, we wait until people die before we respond when we've known all along there are problems here," she said.

DeLauro said she is optimistic this could be the year for tougher food-safety regulations -- a concept that has garnered immense support not only from Congress and the public, but from the White House.

President Barack Obama said last week that outdated food-safety laws were in part to blame for the recent outbreak. The FDA also has been underfunded and understaffed for years, he said.

The administration has nominated Dr. Margaret Hamburg to run the troubled FDA and Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein to serve as her principal deputy.

"I think that bodes well with regard to the FDA and the issue of food safety," DeLauro said, referring to the FDA selections. "There has been too much influence by industry and not enough influence of science."

An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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