The need to boost the nation's defenses against contaminated food has taken on urgency since highly publicized horror stories of outbreaks linked to a strain of E. coli in beef, campylobacter in chicken and salmonella in ice cream and eggs. Food production has changed in a global economy and high-tech world, and regulations ensuring its safe transit to the table need to keep up.
Food-borne organisms kill 9,000 Americans a year, according to a recent study by two organizations that advise the government -- the Institute of Research and the National Research Council, both arms of the National Academy of Science. These statistics tell only part of the story. Public health officials theorize that many more Americans become ill from tainted food, but it goes unreported because the symptoms are short-lived.
To streamline and improve the work of about a dozen agencies that make up the nation's food-safety armada, President Clinton has established the President's Council on Food Safety. This high-level clearinghouse will coordinate government efforts, focusing on prevention of food-borne illness rather than reaction to it. Mr. Clinton promises to combine science-based regulation with inspection, enforcement, research and education programs.
The president opted not to appoint a single food-safety czar to oversee the council, as the recent government report recommended. Instead, he has given the gavel to three of his top advisers -- the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, and the president's assistant for science and technology. The three will oversee other top government officials named to the council.
Creation of so weighty a panel by executive order demonstrates Mr. Clinton's resolve to give food safety high priority. Spreading the responsibility for chairing the new council lessens the potential for politicizing its work. The council's first order of business will be to produce a strategic plan to strengthen existing operations, eliminate duplication and ensure the most effective use of resources for improving food safety.
This is a complicated job in an age when the food supply comes from diverse sources. It's reassuring to know that such high-profile overseers will be accountable to consumers.
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