New Food Safety Regulations? It's About Time

A commentary on why the FDA has so few tools in its food safety toolbox—and why it needs more.

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The food safety bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration far greater authority to stop contaminated food from getting into supermarkets and onto our plates. What's amazing is that if the bill becomes law, this will be the first time the FDA's food safety regulations will have been updated since 1938—before penicillin came into widespread use. It's even more amazing, given that an estimated 76 million Americans get food poisoning every year, resulting in more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's similar to the number of yearly deaths that used to be caused by polio, which led to widespread panic and repeated calls for a vaccine before one was finally developed in 1955. Yet, the prevention of foodborne illnesses has hardly gotten the same attention from Congress. Until now.

The Senate bill would in essence provide the FDA with its first-ever mandate to prevent foodborne illnesses. It would authorize the FDA to order mandatory recalls of contaminated foods instead of merely requesting a voluntary one. And it would establish a minimum frequency for FDA inspections of food processing facilities—increasing inspections to at least once every three years instead of the current practice of once every decade, according to Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. "We think that this is really one of the major accomplishments of the 111th Congress and is a significant step forward for public health safety," Olson says.

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The Senate legislation, which was passed by a 73 to 25 vote, now moves to the House, which passed a stricter bill in 2009. Olson predicts that the House will vote on the Senate legislation within the next few weeks before they break for recess and usher in a new Congress. "A lot of the members that we talked to believe that's the most likely scenario," he says. "Their eye is on the calendar." Congress may have been spurred to prioritize food safety legislation in light of a recent rash of highly-publicized outbreaks of foodborne illnesses: a recall of 380 million eggs earlier this year that were linked to more than 1,600 cases of salmonella poisoning; repeated E. coli outbreaks tied to spinach and other green, leafy vegetables; news reports highlighting children who died after eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

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No question food safety advocates are cheering. "Everyone who eats will benefit from this historic legislation," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the D.C.-based advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement released to the media. "FDA will have new tools to help ensure that America's food supply is safer, causing fewer illnesses and deaths."

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Americans, though, may be surprised by just how empty the FDA's current food safety toolbox really is. At present, the agency can only:

Issue voluntary recalls. The agency is only allowed to recommend voluntary recalls of food products that have been linked to disease outbreaks. "This forces the FDA to negotiate with manufacturers for terms of the recall and weakens their ability to ensure quick recalls," says Olson. This means consumers may be purchasing, say, a jar of contaminated peanut butter or a bag of spinach well after it's been flagged as being potentially dangerous. Companies can also refuse to comply with the agency's recall requests.

Conduct a limited number of inspections. The FDA also has no real funding for initiating food safety inspections at processing plants, money that would have to be provided to the agency by Congress if the legislation passes. The FDA had never inspected the two Iowa-based facilities responsible for this year's massive egg recall, says Olson. If it had, agency inspectors would have likely found uncaged hens strutting across piles of bacteria-ridden manure and henhouses infested with rodents, flies, and maggots—discoveries made only after the FDA requested the recall in August. The peanut plant responsible for the 2009 salmonella outbreak was later found to have dead rodents and excrement in the peanut processor.