(June 13) Country-of-origin labeling and mandatory produce traceability systems were in the spotlight at a June 12 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

The salmonella outbreak illustrates the need for immediate implementation of country-of-origin labeling, said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the subcommittee.

The hearing, titled, “American lives still at risk: When will FDA’s food protection plan be fully funded and implemented?” examined the FDA’s expanded budget request of an additional $275 million for fiscal year 2009.

David Acheson, director of the food safety and security staff at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified at the hearing and was grilled on the salmonella outbreak on the one-year anniversary of the FDA’s Tomato Safety Initiative.

Acheson was asked by Stupak if mandatory country-of-origin labeling would have helped the FDA narrow its focus of investigation in the salmonella traceback investigation linked to raw tomatoes.

Acheson insisted that country-of-origin labeling was “no guarantee” of food safety, but allowed it may have helped the FDA narrow the focus of its investigation.

Asked if full implementation of the agency’s food protection plan would have prevented the salmonella outbreak, Acheson said the agency would have had more science to understand the risks at various points in the supply chain and preventive controls in place to deal with the risk.

“Through the legislative proposals, (we) would have required the preventative controls to be put in place at the various points,” he said.

Lisa Shames, director of food and agriculture issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told the subcommittee that the FDA has not provided a good plan for resources and strategies required to fulfill the food protection plan. The GAO released a report about federal oversight of food safety on June 12, and estimated it would take $524 million to inspect each of the about 65,500 domestic food firms regulated by FDA.

Meanwhile, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., vice chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, asked about the progress of the tomato traceback.

DeGette has introduced legislation that would give the government the authority to force a recall and require the FDA to establish a product-tracing system to enable faster recalls.

When asked about the tomato traceback investigation, Acheson said it began May 31 and was not finished by June 12.

He said the tomato supply chain is extremely complex, with multiple distributors handling tomatoes from up to nine different growers.

Acheson said the agency supports the concept of traceability and said FDA is engaged with the produce industry on the issue, but said he could not comment on the administration’s position on DeGette’s bill.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee, said the administration’s request for an additional $275 million for fiscal year 2009 still falls short of what the agency’s own advisory council recommended.

What’s more, Dingell said during the hearing that each successive food recall or alert is indicative of an inadequately funded agency with “shoddy and shameful” performance on food safety issues.