Saturday, March 14, 2009

Germ Fighter in Chief

It was probably just an innocent oversight. “The United States is one of the safest places in the world to buy groceries at a supermarket or pills at a drugstore,” President Obama observed during his weekly radio address this morning. And meals from restaurants, an option apparently appreciated by our Consumer in Chief? Why wasn’t that thrown in there? Did his speechwriters get burned in the Quiznos giveaway fiasco and now harbor a grudge?

It may be an academic point. The President used his address to announce the formation of a Cabinet-level task force, the Food safety Working Group, to hammer out ways of better safeguarding our food supply. Presumably our whole food supply, including that branch of the pipeline that ends on a restaurant plate or sandwich wrapper.

Given how many things must be starred on Obama’s to-do list, the inclusion of “Improve food safety” underscores just how off-kilter the food protection system has been knocked. It should also stop the industry’s grousing that the party it traditionally favors isn’t sitting in that big cornerless office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Coming on the eve of what food safety specialists know as E. coli Season, the efforts by a Democratic White House can only be a good thing for a business that makes its money by selling food.

Best of all, the Administration is spending $1 billion on an upgrade of food-safety labs and the hiring of more Food & Drug Administration inspectors. It’s the additional funding that all stakeholders, from consumer advocates to food manufacturers to trade associations, have cited as critical to reinvigorating a withered FDA. The only party that seemed to disagree was the one previously occupying the West Wing.

More funding is still needed to help local jurisdictions hire sanitation inspectors, the individuals who visit restaurants to ensure they’re helping themselves in averting food-borne illness. Some towns have cut back or altogether eliminated those frontline watchdogs because of forced cutbacks.

Seems to me the industry has never had a better chance of making sure those grass-roots safeguards are in place.

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