WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Tuesday ordered tougher steps to curb salmonella and E.coli contamination of U.S. food and created a post of deputy food commissioner to coordinate safety in the wake of a major salmonella outbreak.
The administration, concerned by delays in identifying the source of the salmonella contamination that sickened more than 700 people in 46 states this year, also moved to revamp the tracing system to identify origins of foodborne illnesses.
"The food safety system in our country needs a significant update," Vice President Joe Biden said in announcing the new measures. "American families have enough to worry about these days just about putting food on the table, let alone whether the food ... is going to be safe for their kids."
The actions were based on recommendations from a food safety working group created by President Barack Obama in March after a salmonella outbreak in peanut products forced the largest food recall in U.S. history.
"We've seen too many large-scale recalls," said Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "Everything from spinach, peanut products, pistachios, peppers, mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts and recently even cookie dough."
The working group's recommendations call for a focus on prevention, increased surveillance and enforcement, and improved response and recovery after a foodborne outbreak.
Groups briefed on the recommendations praised the administration for placing prevention at the heart of the plan. Donna Rosenbaum of Safe Tables Our Priority called it "a large step in the right direction."
Scott Faber of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said, "The new rules in combination with legislation ... will lay a new foundation for our food safety system by making the prevention of contamination the focus of our food safety strategies."
A House of Representatives committee passed a food safety overhaul last month and a similar bill has been introduced in the Senate. The administration proposal anticipates passage of the pending legislation.
Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Union's food safety campaign, said the new position of FDA deputy commissioner for food "means that, for the first time, there is a 'go to' person at FDA whose sole responsibility is keeping food safe."
Attorney Mark Mansour, who focuses on FDA regulatory law, said smaller firms were concerned about the cost of the new system and plans to fund it with fees, but that there was consensus about the need for a better safety system.
Also on Tuesday, the FDA issued a rule aimed at reducing salmonella contamination of eggs during production that requires increased monitoring for the bacteria and efforts to prevent its spread.
Some 142,000 people are sickened every year and 30 die as a result of egg-borne salmonella in the United States. The White House estimated the new rule would cut illnesses by 60 percent, or 79,000, which it said would save $1 billion.
The administration also directed the Food Safety and Inspection Service to develop standards by the end of the year to reduce salmonella in turkey and poultry.
To reduce E.coli contamination of beef, the FSIS was directed to improve surveillance and testing for the bacteria in plants that handle beef, especially ground beef.
The administration said the FDA would issue guidance to the industry by the end of the month to reduce E.coli contamination in tomatoes, melons and green leafy vegetables.
Faber said the absence of a federal standard for that type of foods was the "biggest hole in the current food safety net" and the proposal to issue guidance "is the single most important step that we can take to reduce the risk of foodborne contamination."
Additional reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Vicki Allen