Good morning. Warm weather has finally taken hold in most of the country, and millions of families are now taking weekend picnics and hosting backyard barbecues. Today I want to speak with you about the foods we serve at these gatherings and how we can make them even safer than they already are.
Our food supply is the most bountiful in the world. And for 7 years now, our administration has been committed to making it the safest in the world. We've improved dramatically the Nation's inspection system for meat, poultry, and seafood. We've added new safeguards to protect families from unsafe imported foods. We've established a sophisticated early warning system that uses DNA fingerprinting techniques to detect and prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness. From farm to table, we've made great strides to ensure the safety of our food supply. But outbreaks of food-related illnesses are still far too prevalent. In fact, millions of Americans get sick from eating contaminated food each year.
One threat we must address immediately comes from a foodborne pathogen called Listeria, which has been the cause of recent recalls of hot dogs and luncheon meats and several deadly outbreaks of disease. The most famous case emerged a year and a half ago, when Listeria killed 21 people and sickened 100 others, all of whom had eaten contaminated meat from a single plant. It was the Nation's most deadly food safety epidemic in 15 years.
Fortunately, Listeria is less common than salmonella, E. coli, and other foodborne bacteria, but unfortunately, it is far more dangerous. A staggering 20 percent of Listeria infections result in death. As with other food-borne bacteria, it's rarely healthy adults who come down with Listeria infections. Instead, it's the most vulnerable among us: infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and those whose immune systems have been weakened by chemotherapy or AIDS.
While our administration has already taken a number of important steps to reduce the threat of Listeria, it's clear we must do more to protect Americans from this deadly pathogen. So today I'm directing the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to prepare an aggressive new strategy to significantly reduce the risk of illness from Listeria. As part of this strategy, we will propose new regulations to require scientific approaches, such as systematic testing for Listeria at food-processing plants, not just random checks. This and other measures will allow us to cut in half the number of Listeria-related illnesses over the next 5 years and save well over 1,000 lives.
Today I call on the food industry to work with us as we develop our new Listeria strategy. And I call on Congress to help us strengthen food safety across the board. Just this week, unfortunately, the Congress took a major step backward by refusing to fully fund our food safety initiative. In fact, they've now voted to block funding for our new efforts to protect millions of American families from the dangers of salmonella poisoning in eggs. We should be doing more, not less, to ensure the safety of our food.
If we work together, we can make real gains this year. We can increase the number of inspections of domestic and imported foods. We can expand the FDA's authority to turn away imported food that does not meet our high safety standards. And at long last, we can give the Department of Agriculture the authority to recall bad food and impose civil penalties for repeat violations. After all, the Department has the right to penalize a circus to protect animals from harm; it's about time we gave them the tools they need to protect human beings from harm, too.
Ensuring the safety of our food and the health of our people are among the most important parts of our citizens' basic contract with their Government. For the sake of millions of Americans, especially the most vulnerable among us, it's an obligation we simply must work together to uphold.
Thanks for listening.