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Food safety revamp urged

From Times Wire Services

Food safety in the United States is no longer improving, highlighting the need to reevaluate the way an American meal makes its way from farm to table, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

Rates of salmonella have shown the least improvement of several food-borne illnesses that the agency tracks, according to its annual report released Thursday. The agency also announced that in response, it would increase capacity at its division overseeing incidents of food poisoning.

“Progress has plateaued,” said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases. “This indicates to us that further measures are needed to prevent more food-borne illness.”

The CDC data come as Congress considers legislation that would reshape the food safety system and require more preventive action. The issue has gained President Obama’s attention and driven proposals to create an agency dedicated solely to food safety outside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Food poisoning strikes 76 million Americans every year, with 300,000 ending up in the hospital and 5,000 dying, the CDC says. Salmonella infections can be fatal in the young and elderly.

Officials last month recalled 1 million pounds of pistachios suspected of salmonella contamination. A peanut-linked salmonella outbreak has sickened hundreds and killed nine since late 2008. As of Wednesday, 3,900 peanut-linked products had been voluntarily recalled by their producers.

The salmonella-linked recalls of the last year have brought angry families to Capitol Hill to protest current standards and share worries about what they can safely feed their children. The outcry has prompted members of Congress to reintroduce bills to overhaul the food safety system.

These lawmakers argue that the system is geared to respond after an outbreak, when it should be structured to catch contamination before it reaches consumers.

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Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has worked on food safety issues for years, introduced a bill that would increase inspections, give the FDA greater access to records and test results, and allow the agency to mandate food recalls.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has introduced a bill that would give the FDA greater power to inspect manufacturers and require importers to verify the safety of their goods. Her bill would also call for greater resources for the food agency.

The CDC data will give some momentum to the lawmakers’ efforts, said Michael R. Taylor, a health policy professor at George Washington University.

“This is all the more motivation and explanation of why we need to make this paradigm shift from a system that’s largely reactive today to one that’s more active,” Taylor said in a telephone interview.

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