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Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs - Remarks at the Atlantic Food Summit

Remarks as Delivered of Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.
Commissioner of Food and Drugs
The Newseum
Washington, D.C.
March 4, 2010

Good morning.

I’m delighted to be here today to participate in The Atlantic’s Food Summit. I’m especially pleased to see such a diverse group of people in the room, ranging from consumer advocates to industry leaders to scientists. In my opinion, it is only through open, honest discussions –and partnership-- with people of all perspectives and expertise that we can make real progress on complex issues.

I’m eager to talk with you this morning about two critical food policy issues: first, how do we make sure that Americans can once again trust that the food we put on our plate every day won’t make them sick; and second, how do we make it easier for people to make more nutritious choices about the foods they eat, in so doing, reduce their risk of diet-related chronic disease, including obesity

When it comes to food safety, I think we need to begin by recognizing that today’s food system isn’t the same one our grandparents, or even our parents grew up with…for that matter, what we grew up with.

Today our food comes from a complex and global food supply that spans every continent and country, and includes everyone from the largest agricultural producers to the smallest sustainable farmers. It involves a vast and widely dispersed network of growers, processors, distributors, retailers, and restaurants.

There are a lot of reasons for that. Consumers in our country today want unlimited food choices. They expect fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, they want exotic foods grown in distant lands, and foods that have been sliced, diced, and pre-washed to save them time in the kitchen.

And there’s one more thing. They assume – or believe they have the right to assume -- that whatever food they choose will be safe.

Unfortunately, experience in the last two decades has shaken this assumption. Bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, and Listeria, as well as viruses and parasites, have increasingly been linked with outbreaks of disease.

Such incidents involving spinach, cantaloupes and other fresh produce – the very foods Americans are being encouraged to consume to eat healthy – have left consumers shaking their heads and wondering what foods are safe to feed their children. At the same time, they have also left key segments of the food industry facing economic uncertainty, and sometimes turmoil.

All this has served as a catalyst to put food safety on the public policy front burner. I was struck by this statement that the Produce Manufacturers Association made one year ago:

None of us can deny that our fresh produce industry faces a different business world today than we did two years ago. Each time any fruit or vegetable is implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak, we all suffer from lost consumer confidence in our industry as a whole. In the long run, this is simply not sustainable and certainly not acceptable.

I couldn’t agree more. We all have a stake in restoring the public’s trust in the food system. And I believe that finally, big change is possible, due in part to three converging forces.

First, consumers and industry both support strong reform measures and both are in agreement on the direction this reform needs to take. They want the food safety system to focus on preventing unsafe foods from entering the marketplace in the first place. They want everyone from farm-to-fork to be accountable for keeping food safe. And they want to hold imports to the same standards we set for domestic handling and facilities.

Second, Congress is nearing passage of crucial bipartisan food safety legislation that would update food safety laws developed in the 1930s. This legislation would effectively mandate the shift from reaction to prevention and give us new, vitally needed legal tools, like mandatory recall authority, which people often are surprised to learn we don’t already have.

It also would provide prompt access to food safety records, modern traceback, and administrative detention tools.

And notably, it would give us new powers to modernize and strengthen the FDA’s ability to ensure that food imports meet U.S. food safety standards. With an estimated 70 percent of seafood and about 35 percent of fresh produce consumed in the U.S. coming from outside our borders, this is especially important.

The third force is that we have a White House that has made food safety a priority. In fact, when President Obama announced my appointment last March, it was just as the issues surrounding one of the worst foodborne disease outbreaks in recent memory….the salmonella contaminated peanuts from the Peanut Corporation of America down in Georgia, was resolving. It had a powerful impact and he stated emphatically that these food outbreaks were a public health hazard that was unacceptable, vowing that they would change under his watch and mine. Toward that goal, he also established the President’s Food Safety Working Group to ensure that his Administration worked together effectively to reverse the troubling trend in food safety. Establishing a framework for action, this group defined a new, public health-focused approach to improving food safety by prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery.

With the public, industry, the Administration and the Congress in such alignment, there is much we can – and must -- accomplish.

So, how do we make sure our food is safer?

First, we need a food safety system that is prevention oriented. That's the fundamental principle of public health and the key to both public health and public confidence.

Food gets safer by systematically building prevention in throughout the food system; by requiring those in the system to do everything they reasonably can to make food safe. We're not talking about zero risk. Our food safety system is a complex system, and no one realistically wants or expects a sterile food supply, but consumers rightly expect us all to do our best.

Second, we need to employ a farm-to-table approach in which every player in the food system is held accountable…and where the highest risk activities or vulnerabilities in that system are appropriately addressed

It begins with the growers, who are the original source of the food we eat. They are responsible for preventing microbial contamination stemming from the four leading sources: water, animal life, manure, and poor worker hygiene.

Next, food processors must guard against contamination in their operations and, where possible, implement measures to reduce or eliminate contamination. Breakdowns in sanitation and other preventive measures are risk factors for foodborne illness.

As food is being transported and stored, here too, steps are needed to protect against pathogen growth. And those running retail environments, namely grocery stores, cafeterias, and restaurants must ensure that their food handling practices are sufficient to prevent harmful bacteria from reaching consumers.

Finally, the consumer needs to be careful in handling, preparing, and storing foods properly.

The bottom line is everyone who touches food shares responsibility for its safety.

Third, we need to work in partnership with other federal agencies and FDA’s state and local partners.

Food safety is an enormous challenge, and no one can do it alone. That is why FDA has been developing an integrated national food safety system. State and local agencies play an invaluable role. They are the frontline of food safety. They are closest to where outbreaks happen; they conduct most of the inspections; test most of the samples; and they typically are the ones who consumers call first.

We recognize, that with the vastness and complexity of the food supply and the demands being placed on us to strengthen food safety, FDA cannot succeed without the states as full operational partners.

We are strengthening alliances with federal partners such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CDC is already our critical partner on outbreak response, but we will also depend, more than ever, on its collaboration in generating the epidemiological data and analysis that informs our prevention efforts. And we are already collaborating more closely with USDA in the leadership of the Food Safety Working Group, and in such areas as produce safety.

Fourth, in our increasingly global world, we must also look beyond our borders. We must seek better cooperation and stronger collaboration with our international counterparts. We need to harmonize food safety standards, share information and approaches, and share responsibilities. And over the longer term, we need to help strengthen the regulatory capacities and performance in developing nations whose products are imported for our market.

Fifth, we are strengthening and unifying our own food safety efforts within FDA.

At FDA, we are committed to strengthening and modernizing every aspect of our food programs and policies—both food safety and nutrition. To that end, I recently created a new position, Deputy Commissioner for Foods, to elevate and better align food-related issues within the agency. I have appointed Mike Taylor to lead this new foods program.

This new organization reflects the fundamental importance of safe food and proper nutrition for the protection and advancement of the public health. It ensures that food issues receive appropriate visibility and priority within the agency, and that there is a high level individual with authority, responsibility and accountability on food-related concerns.

With change at FDA, and new resources, I might add, the hoped-for enactment of reform legislation, and our expanding partnerships, I see enormous opportunities in the coming years to strengthen our food safety system and restore consumer confidence.

As much as we are focused on building up FDA’s food safety program, we also want to strengthen FDA’s focus on nutrition. Here, too, big change is possible, sparked, in part, by the sad fact that the public health problems of overweight and obesity have reached crisis proportions in our nation. Some 65% of Americans are obese or overweight, and almost 17% of youngsters under 20 are obese, putting millions at much greater risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other serious health problems.

The good news is that this problem is on the public radar screen as never before. As you know, the First Lady recently announced the Let’s Move initiative to help tackle childhood obesity by encouraging food companies to make lower calorie products, improving access to fresh produce, and helping kids exercise more.

The First Lady’s initiative also focuses on empowering consumers to choose a healthy diet through more ready access to nutrition information and guidance. And this is where FDA comes in.

More than 16 years ago, FDA implemented the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which for the first time required that basic nutrition information be placed on the back or side panel of virtually all packaged foods. This resulted in the now very familiar Nutrition Facts panel that millions of Americans use and trust to help them make healthier food choices.

Recently, however, with consumers’ growing interest in eating healthy, we’ve seen the emergence of eye-catching claims and symbols on the front of food packages that may not provide the full picture of their products’ true nutritional value.

Earlier this week we released data from the 2008 FDA Health and Diet survey that found that consumers are skeptical and confused about nutrition claims that they see on food products, which makes them less likely and able to make good use of labeling information to improve their diets.

We can and we must do better. Improving the scientific accuracy and usefulness of food labeling must be a priority. Just yesterday, we issued warning letters to 17 manufacturers concerning 22 of their labels with claims or other information that are in violation of the law and subject to legal proceedings. This is just one step toward ensuring the integrity of information on food labels.

But we must do much more than simply getting rid of potentially misleading information. We need to create positive new tools consumers can use to make informed and healthy food choices. This will include updating the Nutrition Facts panel, such as by making calorie declarations more prominent and changing some serving sizes to better reflect today’s packaging and eating patterns.

But we also think the time has come to provide reliable nutrition information and guidance on the front of food packages, not just the back, and in a form that is useful to consumers in the real world of today’s marketplace.

In fact, with the public’s interest in this topic and the First Lady’s initiative, I believe we now have a wonderful opportunity to make a significant advancement in public health if we can devise a front-of-pack labeling system that consumers can trust, understand, and use at a glance.

Take a moment and think of families in grocery stores. How often have you seen a mom or dad being pulled down the aisle by a child grabbing for different snacks or desserts? That parent has precious little time to decide whether to say “yes” or to choose an alternative.

Or think of yourself trying to decide which cereal or crackers or frozen lasagna to buy, going back and forth, turning packages over and scanning through a lot of fine print looking for answers. It’s ok if you have a lot of time and know what you are looking for…but we can make it easier. These are the kind of real-world tests where the label has to work, and our job is to help make it more accessible and more straightforward, so that consumers and make more nutritious choices…or at least fully informed choices.

We are conducting consumer research and intend to work closely with retailers, food manufacturers, and others, in the design of a front-of-package label that is meaningful and works.

In addition, we are trying to learn from work that has already been done, from the experiences of colleagues in other countries that are using some of these kinds of approaches, and we want to hear from any one that has ideas to share.

FDA will be sure that any such label is nutritionally sound, but it will take a collaborative effort to design and implement a front-of-pack tool that will make a real difference for consumers.

In addition to our focus on front-of-pack labeling and our Nutrition Facts label, there are other ways that we can encourage and support Americans who are seeking to gain control over their diets.

For instance, I am following with great interest the local initiatives to require restaurant menu labeling…and the ongoing discussion in Congress of a national menu labeling requirement. If passed, FDA would be responsible for regulating this labeling.

With approximately one-third of all meals consumed outside the home – and given the many well-documented examples of very high calorie content menu items in many popular restaurants – menu labeling can be a powerful new tool for consumers.

I am also watching with interest some of the recent activities with regard to goals for sodium reduction: both the recent initiative in New York City and the ongoing work of an IOM study committee on this topic, whose report should be out in a matter of weeks, I think. Reducing sodium in the foods we eat can have a powerful, positive impact on health protection and disease prevention.

There is a lot to be done, and it truly is a historic time for food safety and nutrition. I feel very privileged to be at the helm of the FDA at this critical time, and I am delighted to be part of this meeting today.

There is enormous excitement about the opportunities before us. As our agency moves forward, we will seek the partnership and support of consumer groups, industry, and others to bring about meaningful change. With so much in the balance, I am grateful for your participation and for your support. Thank you.