AFFI President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin addresses U.S. Chamber of Commerce on 2008 State of American Business.On January 8, 2008, Leslie G. Sarasin, President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), addressed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce audience regarding the state of American business and issues that will dominate this year's legislative agenda in the United States Congress.
The event--"Outlook 2008: The State of American Business"--was sponsored by the National Chamber Foundation, a public policy think tank affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Attendees joined more than 200 business leaders, senior government officials, Washington thought-leaders and special guests to discuss the business issues that will play a key role in the upcoming legislative agenda. Tom Donohue, President and Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, delivered his annual State of American Business address, laying out the Chamber's agenda for the year ahead.
Ms. Sarasin participated in a panel with National Electrical Manufacturers Association President and Chief Executive Officer Evan Gaddis and Association of American Railroads President and Chief Executive Officer Edward R. Hamberger. The panel was moderated by Richard Rubin, a reporter with Congressional Quarterly.
During the presentation, Ms. Sarasin discussed AFFI's legislative agenda for 2008--specifically the issues important to the food industry. She discussed the unfinished legislative agenda Congress must deal with in this upcoming session, as well as issues that the members will address--including comprehensive immigration reform, Farm Bill, food safety, increased funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and energy independence. Ms. Sarasin also commented on the food industry's perpetual state of innovation, whether it's bringing new products to market or developing new safety technologies.
The text of Sarasin's remarks follows:
"Good morning. First, I would like to thank Tom Donohue, Arthur Rothkopf and David Hirschmann for their kind invitation to participate in this event. I would also like to thank Richard Rubin for moderating this panel, and to all of you for joining in this discussion today about the state of American business.
"As Mr. Rubin mentioned, I serve as president and chief executive officer of the American Frozen Food Institute--or AFFI. I participated in this forum last year, and welcome this opportunity to share with you my thoughts and reflections on where we are as a business community, and where I believe we are headed. Given my responsibility to the frozen food industry, my outlook is focused specifically on the challenges the food industry will face in 2008.
"I think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom among the voting public is that the 110th Congress failed to accomplish very much in 2007, and I certainly find myself in that camp. Clearly, whatever gains were made, they were overshadowed by partisan bickering, the ongoing debate on Iraq war policy, and an unfinished legislative agenda important to the business community--especially the food industry.
"For example, many of us hoped Congress would achieve some traction on comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. But the issue stalled in the Congress, leaving our borders unsecured and the business community no closer to achieving a viable guest worker program. The promising AgJOBS bill was also left unconsidered by the U.S. Senate--not too dissimilar to the food crops left unharvested in the fields as a result of inaction on this key issue.
"At the very end of the session, Congress finally did make some progress on a Farm Bill, which is encouraging. The House and the Senate each spent months crafting, debating and ultimately passing their own versions of the Farm Bill in 2007, and I applaud them for doing so. My hope is that a strong version of the bill will emerge from the conference committee to be convened in the coming weeks and that it will arrive on the President's desk for signature. But even this potential accomplishment also underscores the immigration problem. How effective can the Farm Bill be if there are not enough workers to work the farms?
"Seasonal agricultural jobs do not attract enough native-born workers, and there is no adequate alternative labor force readily available to complete the work. States such as California, Washington and North Carolina have implemented aggressive recruitment programs to replace seasonal migrant labor, but with little or no success. An adequate labor force is essential to maintaining the availability of a healthy, safe and abundant food supply in the United States.
"The continued production of a safe food supply is the second of many challenges AFFI will work to achieve in 2008. As this topic of discussion continues in the coming months, it is imperative that we all be reminded that the United States has always had and continues to have the safest and most abundant food supply in the world. I dare say that in very few, if any, corners of this nation does anyone wake up in the morning asking themselves whether they will find something safe to eat that day.
"Notwithstanding this fact, there is more we can do to ensure this continues to be the case. First and foremost, we must ensure that the regulatory agency charged with ensuring the safety of the majority of the food supply have the necessary resources at its disposal to accomplish its mission. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs additional funding--plain and simple.
"The level of food imports has steadily risen in recent years, yet the level of funding for FDA, which is charged with ensuring the safety of the majority of imports, has not kept pace. The FDA is responsible for inspecting and regulating 80% of our nation's food supply--and that 80% of the food supply accounts for some 25% of all consumer spending in this country. Clearly, in order for the industry and the government regulators to effectively fulfill our responsibility to protect public health and welfare, Congress must fund the FDA at levels that allow the agency to perform all its duties and functions.
"An appropriate budget increase will allow FDA to hire the next generation of qualified scientists and other agency personnel who will be the future recipients of critical institutional knowledge. A recent report prepared for the FDA Science Board called FDA Science and Mission at Risk found that FDA cannot fulfill its mission because "its scientific base has eroded and its scientific organizational structure is weak, its scientific workforce does not have sufficient capacity and capability, and its information technology infrastructure is inadequate." Without an increase in funding, the agency faces a critical shortage of expertise and infrastructure in the near future.
"In support of this cause, AFFI has joined a coalition effort of more than 50 patient groups, consumer and public health advocates, and industry representatives to work together to ensure FDA remains well-poised to protect American consumers and patients. The Coalition was formed to undertake a multi-year effort with two primary goals. The first: to ensure FDA has sufficient resources to protect patients and consumers; the second, to maintain and build public confidence and trust in the FDA. Specifically, a $115 million increase in the food budget would allow the Agency to hire more food inspectors, speed approvals for safe new food technologies and products, and provide leadership in protecting the food supply from manmade threats.
"Of course, product safety has always been a priority for the food industry. We have seen this issue receive more intense scrutiny as a direct result of recent cases of foodborne illness. It will be tempting for Congress to attempt to approve a host of legislative initiatives aimed at improving food safety. Thus far, the ideas rang from implementing a single, mammoth food agency similar to that established via the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to requiring that FDA inspectors certify officially each and every foreign food processing facility before their products are allowed in to the U.S., to allowing imports only through a small number of designated ports of entry that have an FDA laboratory on site.
"When Congress reconvenes later this month, it is AFFI's hope that these critical policy decisions will not be made in a vacuum. Sound food safety policy is not satisfied by a "one size fits all" approach. AFFI supports a pragmatic approach to food safety based on the assessment of actual risk and the implementation of quality control measures from the field to the freezer--and other appropriate home appliances.
"The truth is that the food industry is in a perpetual state of innovation, whether bringing new products to market or developing new safety technologies. The freezing process itself, for example, provides one of the most poignant examples of innovation in food safety. Consider the first half of the twentieth century when freezing was considered a fringe technology. Today you would be hard pressed to find a home in America that doesn't include a bevy of frozen products in the freezer.
"The food industry will work collaboratively with members of Congress to develop sensible policies that ensure the safety of food products, but also take into account the industry's perpetual state of innovation and our work to continuously improve safety technologies.
"Globally, there are people whose job it is to research new technologies to enhance the safety of the products we eat. In our own industry, we enjoy the advantage of representing products that by their very nature have a built-in safety mechanism. We know that freezing is lethal for some foodborne pathogens and could be used more broadly to protect the integrity of the food supply. AFFI's member companies scored a major victory for food safety in 2006, when Congressional language appeared in the Agriculture Appropriations bill encouraging USDA to consider a priority those research projects that would result in enhance understanding of the microbiological safety of food through freezing. AFFI will build upon that accomplishment in 2008 through the work of the Frozen Food Foundation, and will continue to pursue opportunities to promote the merits of freezing as a mechanism for enhanced food safety.
"Finally, we also find ourselves in somewhat of a bind as a result of a national energy policy calling for the use of more corn-based ethanol. Today, acres and acres of land are used to grow corn for ethanol production rather than for consumption, resulting in serious price escalations. This cost is then passed along to cattle, poultry, dairy and pork producers--who rely on corn feed for their animals--and ultimately to the American consumer.
"Our belief is that ethanol will not solve the world's energy problems on its own--it is just one of a portfolio of new energy technologies that will be needed in the coming years. We support our country's goal of addressing energy and environmental security issues through the implementation of a sensible energy policy, but not at the expense of American businesses and hard-working farming families.
"There are other issues that Congress must address--such as simplifying the tax code, reforming our health care system, and an everchanging global economy. The American Frozen Food Institute will aggressively seek policy changes on Capitol Hill that will make a difference to our member companies and in the lives of the consumers of the products they produce. The stage is set for many positive things to occur, but we must be vigilantly engaged in the process."