By Maggie Mertens
Spinach, tomatoes and peanut butter that sickened people across the country in recent years put a spotlight on tainted food as a growing public health problem. The disease outbreaks also revealed gaps in the Food and Drug Administration's ability to ride herd on food safety.
Now Congress is kicking around legislation to boost FDA's authority over food. In Senate testimony today, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said the proposal that would help the agency prevent foodborne illness represents a "historic moment for food safety in the United States."
She asked Congress to push ahead with the new law, which has broad support from both political parties, consumers and industry groups.
She said parts of the bill, championed by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, would help FDA hold domestic, imported and fresh produce companies to certain safety standards, preventing these outbreaks, instead of being left scrambling to clean up the aftermath.
While supporting the bill, Hamburg also pushed for some tweaks. Most important, she wants Congress to make sure there's enough money for FDA to fulfill its new responsibilities. She also wants the bill to ease information sharing among federal, state and international regulators.
When President Obama appointed Hamburg in March, he also started the President's Food Safety Working Group, and stated his commitment to upgrading food safety in the US. Hamburg said this goal can only be realized with Congressional support through a bill like this one.