Obama Initiatives Would Improve Nation’s Food Supply: Steps Aimed At Safety, Better Choices

President Obama’s proposed federal budget for the 2011 fiscal year would take steps to improve the quality of the food Americans eat nationwide. Obama’s spending plan includes funds for a food safety initiative at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and investments in new and expanded supermarkets, farmers markets and other food stores in low-income communities.

Obama would increase funding at FDA by $318.3 million specifically to bolster the safety of the American food supply.

The Transforming Food Safety Initiative would set standards for safety, expand laboratory capacity, pilot track-and-trace technology, strengthen its import safety program, improve data collection and risk analysis and begin to establish an integrated national food safety system with strengthened inspection and response capacity, according to Obama administration budget documents.

American consumers have been subjected to a number of food-illness outbreaks in recent years, including tainted peanut butter, bacteria-laced bagged salad, and more. At least 76 million cases of food-borne disease occur each year, according to independent estimates. Food tainted with dangerous bacteria and other pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella causes 5,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our food safety system must be updated – 1 in 4 people get sick every year due to foodborne illness, and children and the elderly are more at risk …,” Vice President Joe Biden says in a statement released last year. “Our inspectors and scientists lack sufficient resources … Our goal is to overhaul the system so that we can get better at both stopping food safety problems before they happen and almost equally as important moving quickly –- much more quickly -– to deal with them when they do … we want to make our new priority preventing those things from happening in the first place.”

Obama last year convened a a Food Safety Working Group, directing the panel to design a food safety system focused on prevention, which ultimately resulted in recommendations for a new, public health-focused approach to food safety.

The FDA’s Transforming Food Safety Initiative would support the core recommendations of the working group, the agency’s budget documents indicate. FDA says it will begin to establish an integrated national food safety system focused on prevention.

As part of its initiative, FDA says it will substantially increase food inspections as well as develop standards for evaluating food safety systems in foreign countries and develop a registry of all importers.

The agency says the track-and-trace technology will guide FDA as it develops food product tracing regulation “that provides for rapid tracing without overly burdening industry.”

Healthy Options For Low-Income Americans

Separately, Obama is calling for more than $400 million in a public-private grant and loan program would dramatically reduce the roughly 23 million Americans who have limited access to full-service supermarkets and create tens of thousands of retail and construction jobs in low-income communities, according to PolicyLink, a national research and action institute that helped craft the initiative.

The $400 million investment, which would be split among the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Treasury, includes $250 million in new market tax credit allocations to spur private investment in underserved communities, PolicyLink says in a statement.

For more than a year, PolicyLink, The Food Trust and The Reinvestment Fund have been working with the White House, the Senate, and the House to create a national-scale version of the successful Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The budget proposal marks an important step in bringing healthy food options to all Americans, according to PolicyLink.

“It’s hard to make healthy food choices until you have nearby healthy food options,” says Judith Bell, president of PolicyLink. “It is not merely coincidence that low-income communities of color with poor access to healthy foods are also getting hit worst by the obesity and diabetes crises. The president’s budget signals a strong commitment to bringing healthy food – and good, long-term jobs – to communities that have been without either for far too long.”

The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, championed by state Rep. Dwight Evans, has been a public-private partnership between the state and private partners. The program has served as a model for similar efforts developing in other states, including New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana and Colorado, supporters say.

The Pennsylvania program helped develop 78 supermarkets and fresh food outlets in underserved rural and urban areas throughout the state, creating or retaining 4,860 jobs in those communities, supporters say. Making this happen required $30 million in state seed money, they add.

“Grocers and market owners across Pennsylvania deserve credit for making the PA program a success and a model, not just in the state’s urban centers, but in rural communities as well,” Evans says.

U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), who introduced an effort to create such a program with a bipartisan resolution in the House last year, has been spearheading the effort in the House along with Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.).

“I support President Obama’s call to create a Healthy Food Financing Initiative so we can move towards addressing this critical issue on a national level,” Schwartz says. “Every day millions of Americans walk out their front doors and see nothing but fast food and convenience stores selling high-fat, high-sugar, processed foods. This lack of retail outlets that sell healthy food options results in higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other health-related issues. The success of the Pennsylvania initiative should be used as the model for a national plan to improve children’s health, create jobs and spur economic development nationwide.”

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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