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White House Proposes New Rules For Food Safety

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White House Proposes New Rules For Food Safety

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White House Proposes New Rules For Food Safety

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Obama's administration has announced plans for aggressive rules aimed at making the nation's food supply safer. The moves come after a series of problems related to tainted food. Reaction so far has been positive, both from industry and consumer groups. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

JOANNE SILBERNER: At the announcement of the new initiatives yesterday, Vice President Joseph Biden set out to make something clear: Food safety is very important to this administration.

Vice President JOSEPH BIDEN: You know, my dad used to say if everything is equally important to you, nothing's important. There have to be priorities, and this is one of those priorities.

SILBERNER: Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told food producers and food safety advocates that enough is enough.

Secretary KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Health and Human Services): We've seen too many large-scale recalls, everything from spinach to peanut products, pistachios, peppers, mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts and recently even cookie dough.

SILBERNER: Five thousand Americans die from contaminated food each year, she said, and tens of millions get sick. So the administration is directing its agencies to design tougher production standards for marketers of poultry, beef, leafy greens, melons and tomatoes. And the agencies are designing a national food registry so contaminated food can be traced back to its source, and so consumers can be alerted immediately once a problem is discovered.

The FDA announced a special initiative on eggs that, as described by FDA food safety chief Stephen Sundlof, sounds pretty onerous.

Dr. STEPHEN SUNDLOF (Food Safety Chief, Food and Drug Administration): Under the rule, egg producers must buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for salmonella bacteria.

SILBERNER: Egg producers will have to have specific safety plans, eliminate rodents and pests, guard against bioterrorism, test regularly for salmonella, and refrigerate eggs during storage and transportation.

Now you might think food processors would be unhappy at the government's involvement. They're not. The millions of dollars in lost sales in the last salmonella epidemic is fresh in everyone's minds. And many producers have adopted food safety practices on their own, Howard Magwire of the United Egg Producers said yesterday while driving home after a visit to a processing plant.

Mr. HOWARD MAGWIRE (United Egg Producers): The farm that I visited today probably meets or even exceeds the requirements of the FDA rule.

SILBERNER: He says egg producers are hoping the regulations will assure a public that's nervous now when they go to buy a dozen large grade A's.

Mr. MAGWIRE: Industries don't very often go out and say, hey, big government, come and regulate us. But they have been supportive of the concept of an egg-safety regulation.

SILBERNER: Over at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Vice President Scott Faber is happy that the administration is focusing on preventing food contamination.

Mr. SCOTT FABER (Vice President, Grocery Manufacturers Association): For 100 years, we have attempted to find the needle in the haystack. And now starting today, the job of FDA and USDA will be to try to prevent needles from getting into the haystack in the first place.

SILBERNER: Consumer groups, too, are generally pleased, though they, like the trade groups, are anxious to see the details. And Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest wants more.

Ms. CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL (Center for Science in the Public Interest): We really don't have a good handle on the imports that are coming into the U.S. We also are lacking a - really, a common structure, a common philosophy for food safety regulation.

SILBERNER: Some of that common structure may come from legislation that's working its way through Congress now.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.

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