Food Summit Action


Sam Kittner

Last week The Atlantic staged our first, and we hope not our last, Food Summit. We got a pretty stellar lineup of speakers, thanks to their kindness and to the untiring efforts of our Ben Bradley, who put in untold hours arranging the schedule and (with Suzanne Merkelson) prepping me, and my colleagues Marc Ambinder and James Gibney, who each moderated one of the three really substantive panels of the day.

We'll post video clips a bit later in the week. For now, have a look at Sara Rubin's report on Marc's food safety panel and Nicole Allan's introduction to some of the issues on my panel on ways to fight obesity.

Marc drew out themes brought out by FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who led the day with a trenchant and terrific keynote. The administration wants to see much more funding and attention go to food safety—and so does the public. Hamburg herself appointed the Food Channel's own Mike Taylor as Deputy Commissioner for Foods, a new position, with a mandate to coordinate efforts on food safety and nutrition.

But the comprehensive food safety legislation the House passed is still waiting in the Senate. And meanwhile the FDA, incredibly, has no mandatory recall authority, despite polls that Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Charitable Trust, cited in Marc's panel showing that the public assumes it does. Nor does it have anything like the money it needs to conduct regular inspections and monitor the safety of the fully 70 percent of seafood and 30 percent of produce sold in the U.S. originating in other countries.

Hamburg called for a "farm to table" approach—a phrase we're used to when calling for fresh food, here applied to food safety—in which "every player is held accountable." She brought up what became a running theme of the day, both in food safety and health care: prevention. "Food gets safer by building in prevention," she said. Growers need to prevent microbial contamination from water, animal life, manure, and poor worker hygiene. Food processors must guard against contamination in their operations. Food storage also entails large risk areas. Cafeteria and other food service has to be careful, too. And oh—consumers need to be careful too. Good thing she's got Mike Taylor!

A questioner after her talk raised the standard objection to prevention: it's expensive. Yes, Hamburg replied, it can be, especially in early implementation, though "over the long term it saves real money and lives and unnecessary disease." Sensibly, she added, "I think farmers and food producers have always implicitly had a prevention model in mind. No one wants to produce contaminated or adulterated food." Prevention can be expensive, but it's "our responsibility" and "the right thing to do"—and it needs to be funded. "The sad truth," she said, forcefully reiterating something all longtime observers of the FDA know, "is that our food-safety program hasn't received the funding and attention it needed to in recent years."

She's also in charge of nutrition information, too, of course, and clear, quick useful front-of-pack labeling—heralded on the Food Channel in a piece by Mike Taylor—was another running theme of the day. Hamburg called menu calorie labeling, now going into effect in many states and which I've written about here and here, a "powerful new tool" that will be increasingly necessary now that one third of meals are eaten outside the home. The FDA will be in charge of regulating a proposed national rule for calorie labeling, which many of us hope to see go into effect—if it's strong enough.

It was a great start to a great day. More during the week, but for now what my people and possibly his would call a Vorspeis of my lunchtime talk with the Food Channel's and, oh yes, the White House's Zeke Emanuel, which was kind of rollicking, as this clip that Conservative News Service posted for obvious, if kind of silly, reasons, shows.