The New Food Safety Contradiction
While many of us began another year thinking about food and trying to make better choices than the “cookies-only” diet, President Obama started off 2011 by signing into law a bill that will hopefully allow us to improve food safety.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed by Obama soon after he stepped off of Air Force One upon his return from Hawaii (Hey, some people have to pee right away, and others have to sign a federal bill), is the first major overhaul of the FDA’s food safety responsibilities since 1938. (Think of how food and food production has changed since then; I don’t think they yet had the stuff that makes cheesy puffs such a vibrant orange.)
A law is only as good as the rules agencies write to put it into practice — and the money allocated to enforce it. This new law is not exactly chock full of enforcement muscle, and it will most likely take a few years to see the bill’s various components fully applied.
Of course, while the bill may now be law, some members of the new Congress are already making noise about how they won’t fund FDA to put this law into effect or get the inspectors to enforce it. Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA), the new chair of the Agriculture subcommittee that oversees the FDA’s budget, seems to think that our food safety record is “99.999 percent safe,” even though he admits, “there’s a lot of food-borne illnesses.” This contradiction is about as telling as having a safety law in place that lacks funding to enforce it. I guess Kingston doesn’t think last year’s food recalls are indicative of a bigger food safety problem. After all, our food safety record is merely one percentage point away from perfection. You can see Mark Senak’s interview with the Congressman here.
So what does the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act do?
• It applies to foods regulated by the FDA. (Including produce and processed foods – but not meat or poultry, which are regulated by the USDA.)
• Some provisions that work immediately, including…
- Mandatory recall authority when food manufacturers refuse to initiate a voluntary recall for contaminated food.
- Enhanced authority to review a company’s food safety records if FDA inspectors suspect that a company is in violation of food safety laws.
• It includes a schedule for FDA inspection of food processing facilities – after several years, the agency will inspect once every three years for “high-risk” food facilities and once every five years for “low-risk” facilities.
• It creates new requirements for food processors to develop food safety plans that reduce the risk of food contamination.
• It creates a grant program for training small processors and farmers to assist them as they come into compliance with the produce safety or food safety plan requirements.
• It calls for double the number of inspections of foreign food facilities that export products to the U.S. every year, for five years.
• The law sets a target of 5000 food safety employees at FDA by fiscal year 2014 – 2000 more than the agency currently has.
• It exempts some small farmers and processors. This provision of the bill, authored by Senator John Tester (D-MT), exempts some small farms/food processors under a certain size from food safety plan and produce safety requirements if they sell primarily directly to consumers. This was a welcomed addition to the final bill.
Except for the provisions that go into effect immediately, the FDA has to write regulations and get funding to carry out the other portions of the bill.
This bill was a long time coming, and went through a tumultuous process in the last Congress before it finally became law. So the million dollar question: was it worth it? The short of it is that this bill will not be the panacea for all of our food safety problems. On the other hand, it’s still a critical step forward in the exhausting process of updating our food safety system one piece at a time. And we all have to be involved over the next year or more as the FDA puts the pieces of the bill into effect.