Organic Consumers Association

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After Scary Year, Will Food in 2010 Be Any Safer?

Here's a holiday menu that we'd all like to forget:

For the appetizer: San Antonio Bay oysters polluted with Noroviruses. For the main course: grilled beef infected with E. coli from contaminated tenderizing needles; chicken with Campylobacter or imported ham with Listeria monocytogenes. Then there's a side dish of stuffing loaded with salmonella-contaminated hazelnuts. And for those watching their weight: a popular nutritional drink fouled with the food poison Bacillus cereus.

All were recalled this month by the federal government or were the subjects of warnings by food safety experts. And 2010 isn't shaping up to set a safer table, according to some of the country's leading food safety experts.

That's not the message from the government's three big players in the war against dangerous food -- the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control. All predict the food supply will be safer because of new safeguards being pushed by the Obama administration.

Less than two months after taking office, the president announced the creation of the Food Safety Working Group and promised more resources to safeguard the nation's food supply. "Many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt," Obama said at that time.

The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service and the FDA are trying to improve product traceability, both forward and back, in the production chain, with the goal of being able to respond quicker to outbreaks, said Caleb Weaver, USDA's press secretary.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants his agency to "further reduce the incidence of food-borne pathogens and the number of food-borne-related deaths to zero," Weaver added.

However, some managers and field investigators in the same agencies have views much closer to those of food safety activists. They predict that the very powerful food industry lobbyists, especially for the meat producers, will go down swinging and screaming to thwart meaningful food safety reform.

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