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United Fresh Produce Association 2010 Washington Public Policy Conference

Washington, DC
September 16, 2010

Thank you Steffanie for that lovely introduction.

It’s great to be here with you today because we share a common goal: We all want Americans to eat their fruits and vegetables. We want to see more fresh produce in our restaurants, schools, markets and homes.

For us, the motivation is simple: unhealthy eating habits are one of the biggest factors in a growing health crisis.

Today, two out of three American adults are overweight or obese. For children, it’s one out of three – four times what it was 40 years ago.

Many of us can remember when Type 2 diabetes was called “adult-onset” diabetes. Now, doctors have stopped using the term because so many children are being diagnosed with this disease.

This not only has huge costs for Americans’ health. It also puts enormous pressure on our health care system and economy. A recent study found that obesity costs the US economy $215 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity.

If we want to build a healthier country and a healthier economy, we need to have a healthier diet. To do that, we have to change some old habits.

Any kindergarten student can tell you that fruits and vegetable are good for you. But last year, only one third of American adults had fruit or even fruit juice twice a day as recommended. Only a quarter ate vegetable the recommended three times per day.

Some of that’s a choice. But some of it isn’t.

Almost 24 million Americans today live in a “food desert,” meaning they have to travel over a mile to find a supermarket, the best source of fresh produce for most families. At my department, we’re lucky to have a fruit stand outside our headquarters and a weekly farmers market on our block. But for many families, buying fruits and vegetables just isn’t convenient.

So if you’re a working parent, you may want to serve your family a salad or some fresh fruit. But after a long day of work, it’s easy to understand why they choose the hamburger and French fries instead of the supermarket 20 minutes away.

We also have to look at the food our children get at school. Thirty-one million children participate in our nation’s school lunch programs, but lots of time the only vegetables and fruit they get are the tomato sauce on their pizza and the cherry at the top of their sundae cup.

A third obstacle is information. Lots of people want to eat healthy, but they’re not sure what’s good for them and what’s not. I can remember being a working mom walking through the supermarket. When you have a kid tugging on your arm, you don’t always have time to read the nutrition facts on every box of cereals or snacks.

These are all barriers standing between Americans and healthy diets that include lots of fruits and vegetables. Our challenge if we want to become a healthier country is to take down those barriers and make eating healthy the easy choice.

Over the last year and a half, that’s what we’ve tried to do.

We’re bringing healthy foods and lifestyles into America’s neighborhoods, starting with a historic $650 million Recovery Act investment to promote health and wellness and reduce chronic disease.

A significant share of these funds went to some of the most promising local strategies for overcoming the obstacles between Americans and eating healthy diets.

In San Diego they’re using these funds to supply healthy food to high need areas by creating convenient distribution centers.

In Miami Dade County, they’re increasing the availability of healthy foods and beverages in schools, worksites, hospitals, and other community institutions.

These grants harness the great prevention work being done at the state and community level. And they also create models that can be replicated around the country. If you’re a governor or a mayor or a superintendent wondering how to promote healthy eating, these communities are leading the way.

We’ve also launched an ambitious effort to wipe out food deserts within seven years.

As part of a program initiated by the First Lady, we’re working with the Departments of Agriculture and Treasury on a new Healthy Food Financing Initiative. This program is going to help bring healthy foods into some of our most deprived communities.

Building grants will help break ground on supermarkets. Business plan assistance will help keep healthy food vendors profitable. And we are going to make our programs adaptable and flexible so that when one initiative is successful, it can be replicated again and again.

We’re also focusing on helping our kids eat more nutritious meals at school.

As you all know, the First Lady has been leading a campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

One of the foundations of her work has been the Healthier US Schools Challenge Program which encourages schools to provide better meals, nutrition education and physical activity in order to make our kids healthier.

With the help of school and food suppliers, we’re incorporating Institute of Medicine recommendations on how to make school meals healthier. And we are connecting chefs to their local schools to work with teachers and parents to teach kids about food and nutrition.

We’re also working with the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance to expand a program that you started to put a “salad bar in every school.” We want to give every American child the chance to learn how delicious fresh fruits and vegetables can be.

Finally, we’re working to give Americans the information they need to make healthier choices.

The new health reform law created a menu labeling program will help Americans get the facts about food choices in restaurants and vending machines so they can make healthier selections.

And we’re revamping the federal dietary guidelines to emphasize what everyone in this room already knows, that fruits and vegetables need to be a part of a healthy diet.

So together we’re working hard to overcome obstacles to healthy eating. If we want Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, we need to make it as easy to get a corn on the cob as corn chips, as easy to get fresh strawberries as strawberry ice cream. That’s what we’re trying to do.

But we know that, in order to succeed, we need your help.

First, we need your continued commitment and partnership with organizations and communities that are tackling this issue. Working together we can ensure that fresh fruits and vegetables are widely available in schools as well as rural and urban areas with limited access to healthy foods.

Second, we need you to help us keep our fruits and vegetable safe.

Every year, millions of people in the United States suffer from foodborne illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands die.

The pattern is all too familiar. Local health officials around the country begin to see an uptick in foodborne illnesses. They notify the CDC who identifies the extent of the outbreak, and then notifies the FDA. The FDA investigates to find the source and warns the whole country to avoid the food of concern.

As you know well, this process creates anxiety and confusion for consumers and real economic losses for farmers, food processors and retailers. This time it was eggs. But the list of recently-tainted foods reads like anyone’s typical grocery list.

It is bad for Americans, and frankly, it is bad for business. Every time a bad actor produces tainted food, your entire industry suffers. According to one recent study, food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, cost the United States $152 billion annually in healthcare and other losses.

The problem is that we’ve been monitoring a 21st-century food system with 20th century tools, rules, and resources. As our food system has evolved, our methods for monitoring it have stayed stagnant. The last significant food safety-related changes to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act took place in the late 1930s.

But today, our food economy has changed. Nearly half our fruit and over three quarters of our seafood come from overseas. It is time for an upgrade.

Currently, FDA is forced to chase down food contaminations after they have occurred, rather than protecting the public from threats in the first place. Government has a fundamental responsibility to ensure the safety of our food supply, yet we lack many of the resources necessary to truly meet that responsibility.

Since President Obama took office, he’s made building a 21st century food safety system a top priority.

Last March, he created the President’s Food Safety Working Group, which I co-chair along with Secretary Vilsack. The Working Group recommended a new public-health focused approach to food safety based on three core principles: prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery. These findings reflected the input of 13 agencies and Offices with a role in food safety.

And a year and a half after those recommendations were made, we are already seeing them in action. We have improved E. coli testing both in the field and in the lab. We launched the Reportable Food Registry so that public health officials and industry can report problems quickly. And we have created an incident command system that links all agencies for communication and action in the event of an outbreak.

We have also continued our work on produce safety, working closely with industry, states and the Agriculture Department.

Our goal is a true farm-to-table approach to produce safety. We are currently working to create a risk-based rule focused on prevention that also recognizes the diversity of produce as a commodity and the individual best practices in its process.

We have received nearly 900 comments that are being considered by produce working groups at FDA. And we anticipate releasing a proposed rule in 2011, with a comment period that will allow for change and improvement.

Ultimately, food safety is an industry-wide responsibility – so we need your help too to continue and expand safety education efforts, not just with producers, but with retailers, transporters, and of course, consumers.

To help with that effort, we’ve worked closely with the Agriculture Department to develop, a powerful tool that will help consumers, public health officials and industry communicate about food safety and keep the system safe and working.

But to build a 21st century food safety system, we need better tools from Congress.

Last year, a bipartisan majority in the House passed major food safety legislation to move the United States from a reactive food safety system to one focused on preventing illness.

Likewise in the Senate, a bipartisan coalition has developed a strong food safety bill that is poised to reach the Senate floor, possibly in the very near future.

This legislation has the support of a remarkably broad coalition of public health, consumer and food industry groups. President Obama and I commend both chambers for their hard work. But now we need to finish the job.

It’s time to break the pattern of foodborne illnesses, deaths and economic loss and give FDA the modern tools and resources it needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

When we talk about our country’s health and safety, the challenges can seem overwhelming. Problems can seem widespread. Danger can come from the places we least expect it. The health risks are so large. The costs to our health care system are so high. There is a lot at stake. It may seem hard to imagine what one person or one producer can do.

But there is another side to this challenge and it brings a huge opportunity.

If we can restore the public’s faith in the safety of the food they eat and help Americans eat a healthier diet, there would be huge benefits for our health care system, for productivity, and for the health of our country.

It won’t be easy. But our best chance to succeed is by working together.

Thank you.