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Murano: Science Needed for Sound Food-Safety Policies

ARLINGTON, VA - Policymakers must use science-based answers to handle adequately food safety issues, said former Under Secretary of Agriculture Dr. Elsa Murano.

Speaking at the USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum here yesterday, Murano, who is currently Texas A&M vice chancellor and dean of agriculture and life sciences, said: "Above all, we have to take a stand on science no matter what."

"To take a strong stand, one has to have the right equipment," said Murano, who was undersecretary for food safety from 2001-2004. "And that means that we need objectivity, relevance, accessibility, sustainability and flexibility in research, so that in the end we can develop policies based on science."

Murano said decisions that don't consider research findings can damage the food supply and consumer confidence. Banning of whole muscle cuts from animals more than 30 months old from countries, such as Canada, with sound bovine spongiform encephalopathy controls, is an example of decision-making that is inconsistent with a science-based approach, she said.

"Science shows that such meat is safe," Murano said. "I commend (U.S. Agriculture) Secretary Johanns for stating that he would take a second look at the scientific soundness of proposed USDA policies regarding this issue."

She also pointed to the government's hesitancy in sanctioning irradiation of the highest-risk foods and the wasting of resources by requiring continuous inspection of all foods regardless of risk.

"If a food product poses no risk because it is processed to eliminate contaminants, why should we have an inspector there on a daily basis, when that person could better serve to inspect products more likely to pose a risk to public health?" she said.

On the other hand, she continued, government has made some strides in science-based food safety policies, such as facilitating approval of food decontamination methods and the development of peer-reviewed risk assessments.

Room exists for continued improvements, she said. Among those changes could be the creation of scientific advisory panels that would be rapidly available to policymakers. She also suggested that funding should be flexible and research can be steered toward emerging issues.

In addition, she urged the continued funding of land-grant university agricultural experiment stations, which "provide the needed foundation that allows for sustainable research efforts over the long term."

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