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US Announces New Rules For Food Safety

The Obama administration Tuesday has announced new measures aimed at making the U.S. food supply safer.

In recent years, a string of disease outbreaks have highlighted problems in the safety of the U.S. food supply. Everything from fruits and vegetables to meat and nuts has been pulled from supermarket shelves because of contamination.

Safety is priority

Beginning last fall, more than 700 illnesses and nine deaths have been traced to tainted peanuts. And most recently, nearly 200,000 kilograms of contaminated beef have been recalled after at least 23 people fell ill from E. coli poisoning.

Announcing the new measures, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Obama administration has made improving food safety a priority.

"We know that families have enough to worry about. You shouldn't have to worry about whether the food on your dinner table is safe," Sebelius said.

The changes include a new rule that the Obama administration says will eliminate nearly 80,000 cases of food poisoning from Salmonella-tainted eggs each year. New standards to cut Salmonella infections from turkeys and chickens are on the way as well. And by the end of July, beef producers will be under greater scrutiny for E. coli contamination. The administration also will release new recommendations for reducing the risk to leafy greens, melons, and tomatoes.

Bryan Silbermann is the head of the Produce Marketing Association. He says fruit and vegetable growers have already started making changes, and they're actually looking forward to more regulation from the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA.

"We have asked FDA in the past to issue commodity-specific mandatory regulations, and so quite honestly, we're pleased with this," he said.

Beef industry reaction muted

The beef industry's reaction was more muted than the produce industry's. An industry spokeswoman said she hopes the administration will work with beef producers on implementing increased inspections.

But consumer groups are generally pleased with the changes. Caroline Smith DeWaal is food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

"This is a good beginning. It's definitely a step toward a safer food supply. But there are no quick fixes when it comes to food safety," she said.

Smith DeWaal says it still will take years to work out some of the details of the new proposals, and more needs to be done to plug other holes in the food safety system.

One factor that remains unclear is what the change will cost, and who will pay for it. Smith DeWaal says even if consumers get stuck with the bill, it's still cheaper than the alternative.

"Consumers end up paying for unsafe products when they get sick, when they're hospitalized, when they have to stay home from work. So, the costs of food safety are paid one way or the other," she said.

Tracking contaminated foods

Officials say another change the Obama administration is working on is how to track the contaminated foods better. But food experts say it has become harder to do in today's globalized marketplace. They say the recent outbreaks in the United States have been linked to products made both in the country and abroad.

Bryan Silbermann from the Produce Marketing Association says his colleagues in the U.S. and nearly 50 countries worldwide are watching the new food safety rules closely.

"I would expect that the same requirements would be placed on food no matter where it comes from," he said. "And that is certainly, I think, going to be the word coming from Capitol Hill [Congress] as well."

U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill currently are considering legislation to further strengthen food safety regulations.