Along with ensuring the well-being of our animals, producing a safe product is the most important priority for U.S. pork producers. It’s also a priority in Washington, D.C.

This month, the U.S. Senate is expected to take up a bill to reform the nation’s food-safety system. The U.S. House has already approved its own food-safety measure, and the Obama administration has made a series of recommendations for the government to address as well.

The U.S. pork industry knows that domestic and international consumers must feel confident that the foods they buy are safe to eat, and to that end, it recognizes that the nation’s food-safety system must be improved.

Food safety was a principal reason the industry developed the Pork Quality Assurance program in 1989, which was modeled after the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point programs used by food manufacturers. PQA was designed to identify on-farm practices with potential to result in a food-safety hazard and to minimize the potential risk through producer education. The program was updated in 2007 and is now known as PQA Plus.

Even the industry’s Take Care — Use Antibiotics Responsibly program, which includes guidelines for judicious use of animal-health products, promotes safe pork. (Remember, healthy animals mean safe meat.)

The U.S. pork industry also supports strong, well-funded, professionally staffed federal food-safety agencies, primarily USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees most meat, poultry and egg products; and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Food and Drug Administration, which regulates all other foods, along with animal feed and veterinary products. There are 13 other federal agencies that are involved with ensuring the safety of food.

FSIS, which under the Federal Meat Inspection Act inspects all imported meat and meat processed in packing plants that engage in interstate commerce, does a good job, basing its policies and procedures on sound science. Its 8,000 employees oversee about 6,300 domestic facilities.

FDA and its 1,900 workers, on the other hand, have been hard-pressed to effectively watch over the 13,600 facilities under its purview. Recent food illnesses involving peanuts, peppers and spinach put the spotlight on the agency and have prompted congressional action to overhaul food inspections and agriculture production practices.

The House’s recently approved Food Safety and Enhancement Act of 2009 would grant FDA new powers to require food facilities to have food-safety plans, to prohibit or restrict movement of food for safety problems and to create a “farm-to-fork” tracing system. Originally, the bill would have granted FDA authority over all food producers, including livestock and poultry farmers.

The National Pork Producers Council and other livestock groups pushed for and got an amendment to the bill that exempts livestock, poultry and grain, but the bill would still give FDA new authorities over feed mills and animal health products.

The Senate bill — the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — mostly focuses on FDA reform and food-safety issues related to fruits and vegetables.

The House legislation also would give FDA the power to issue mandatory recalls of “adulterated” or “tainted” food products, to require food producers to keep additional records and to impose registration fees on facilities that are required to register under the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. (Farms and restaurants are exempt from the act.)

It’s those provisions, and FDA’s new controls over feed and veterinary products, that concern the pork industry. While producers are exempt from the House bill, and are not expected to be covered under the Senate’s, the concern is that the administration will want to amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act to include similar requirements.

The White House Food Safety Working Group recently outlined a variety of measures to prevent food-borne illnesses, asking FDA and FSIS to develop standards and step up product testing for certain bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli. It also proposed better coordination between the various food-safety agencies and more inspections of food-processing facilities. While the focus of FSIS’ new standards is poultry and beef, they may be applied to pork products in the future.

Most of the working group’s recommendations, however, don’t have the force of law, and changing the Federal Meat Inspection Act would give USDA more teeth when it comes to regulating meat and poultry.

The U.S. pork industry, as it does with regard to addressing other issues, prefers industry solutions over government mandates. It remains to be seen whether food safety will be left in the hands of those who produce food or bureaucrats who produce, well, bureaucracy.

Bob Dykhuis is a pork producer from Holland, Mich., a member of NPPC’s board of directors and chairman of NPPC’s animal health and food security policy committee.