The FDA’s New Year’s Resolution: Stop Being Sluggish on Food Safety

The Administration proposes two new rules—a mere 12 months past deadline.

Farms and food-production facilities will soon be required to have detailed plans for preventing outbreaks. (Photo: Renee Keith/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Two years after President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released two proposed rules today, designed to improve the safety of the American food supply.

The move by the FDA comes a full 12 months behind the congressionally mandated deadline for putting the law into effect. Still, the action is being welcomed by both producers and industry watchdogs, many of whom believed implementation of the law was being stalled over election year politics.

These two rules proposed by the agency will require food producers to put formal plans in place for preventing foodborne illnesses. Additionally, they require enforceable safety standards for the production and harvesting of produce on farms. Further rules focusing on food imported into the U.S. are expected to be released soon.

 “The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is a common sense law that shifts the food safety focus from reactive to preventative,” said Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services Secretary, in a statement.

The focus of FSMA is to address food safety in imported and processed food, and to address produce contamination, which has been in the spotlight after several high-profile, deadly outbreaks of tainted produce, such as the Jensen Farms listeria-tainted cantaloupe incident, the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach, and the more recent and widespread Sunland peanut butter recall.

While the U.S. is considered to have one of the safest food supplies in the world, foodborne illness remains a serious problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, and 3,000 die. The long-awaited FSMA marked the first major overhaul in the food safety laws since the 1930s.

“The new law should transform the FDA from an agency that tracks down outbreaks after the fact, to an agency focused on preventing food contamination in the first place,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety cases, tells TakePart that unless enforcement measures are knitted into the new rules, Americans shouldn’t expect to see foodborne illness eradicated anytime soon.

“You can set all the rules you want. The real question is—are all the players in the industry going to observe them? Where’s the mechanism to make sure the companies that might ignore them are caught before an outbreak happens?” he says.

“You need boots on the ground randomly testing and inspecting. The FDA doesn’t have the people power to do that. This is really not rocket science. Much of what they’ve done is completely commonsensical, but who is in those plants making sure the companies are doing what they’re supposed to be doing? That’s why you need inspections.”

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