In his first press conference as USDA Secretary, Tom Vilsack, on Monday said the United States' priority must be to modernize its food-safety system.

He said that will be USDA's first effort before the agency reorganizes divisions that inspect and regulate food. "A modernized system would have as a goal prevention, early detection if it can't be prevented, and mitigation of any adverse impacts if something occurs," Vilsack said in a conference call.

The U.S. food safety system has been criticized for failing to protect consumers from pathogens, such as a the recent Salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter.As of Jan. 29, there have been seven deaths related to the outbreak, and 491 people from 43 states had become ill. More than 125 products containing peanut butter had been recalled. USDA is not involved in the investigation or recall, but is concerned that tainted peanut butter could get into school lunch and other nutrition programs which the department administers, Vilsack said.

USDA and the Food and Drug Administration divide oversight responsibilities of the U.S. food supply. FDA is in charge of 80 percent of the supply, including fruits, vegetables and processed foods. USDA oversees food like eggs, meat and poultry. USDA also overseas many public food and nutrition programs, including food stamps and school lunches.

Some outside groups are pushing for the government to create a single food-safety agency.

"Before there can be any conversation about merging entities or a single agency or anything of that sort, you've got to get the foundation right," Vilsack said. 

A spot that Vilsack will make a priority to fill is the undersecretary for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "We are aggressively working on that this week," he said.

Also at the news conference, Vilsack said USDA's decision to use $3.2 million, originally set aside for the specialty crop block-grant program, to enforce mandatory country-of-origin labeling would be reversed and the block-grant program would receive the funds as Congress intended. There was no further indication what is next for the COOL program. The Obama administration has taken the position to halt and review many of the final rules for programs published in the Federal Register during the last month or so of the Bush presidency.  

Vilsack announced that USDA would extend, for 60 days, the comment period on the federal payment limit rule, which will only impact the 2010-2012 crop years. The interim final rule applies to the 2009 crop year.

Vilsack touched briefly on several other topics of importance to agriculture, including the rural economy, growing U.S. renewable energy production and improving rural communities' access to technology.