Food safety is "a global issue that demands a global response," says Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, taking issue with those who would "argue that to insure the safety of the American food supply, the wisest course would be to isolate U.S. agriculture from the rest of the world."
Because "diseases and pathogens respect no national borders," the wiser course, she said at the Food Safety Summit at Washington "is to work cooperatively with other countries on food safety."
Every link in the food chain "needs to work together toward common solutions," Veneman said.
Food safety goals must begin, she said, with "an understanding that the food chain has fundamentally changed over the past few decades," and that today the various sectors of the food economy, from producers to processors to retailers, "grow more interconnected every day.
"U.S. agriculture operates in a global, high tech, consumer-driven environment…and changing consumer demands are challenging existing marketing institutions and traditional ways of doing business."
Veneman said also that the USDA will seek to:
o Insure that all food safety policies are based on sound scientific principles. It's important, she said, "for those of us who oversee research and make policy based on its findings to accept only scientific studies that live up to the highest standards of methodological integrity."
o Continue to educate the public about all aspects of food safety, from the testing done at the USDA to safe handling practices for consumers. "A well-educated public is better prepared to assess the validity of claims they may hear in the media and to reject false or misleading information." An example, she said, is the confusion resulting from the extensive publicity about foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom and Europe. "Many people worry needlessly that foot and mouth disease poses a risk to humans — which, of course, it does not, and the USDA is working hard to get that message out."
o Insure that the USDA's food safety policymaking process continues to be transparent and that the public has the opportunity to provide input and be fully involved through public meetings and other methods.
o Encourage public-private partnerships to address food safety problems.
o Strengthen the cooperative working relationships between the USDA and other government agencies involved in food safety. "We were very pleased when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Whitman announced that her agency will re-establish a liaison to USDA. This will help to insure that our respective agencies work together toward our common goals, rather than at cross purposes."
Consumer confidence in the U.S. food supply "is high," Veneman said, noting that those who travel oversees "have seen firsthand what can happen when the public loses confidence in the government's ability to protect the food they buy."
Even though the American public is confident of the ability of government to insure food safety, she said "no system of regulations or inspections can remain effective forever" and the USDA's efforts to protect the food supply "must be constantly reassessed and updated where necessary. Already, our partners in industry are looking at ways to improve our system even further."
When government, industry, scientists, farmers, and consumers work together to solve problems, Veneman said, "the results are policies that satisfy the interests of the various groups while promoting the public good."