Freshening up food safety laws

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U.S. food safety laws are like an egg-salad sandwich that's been left too long in the sun: Once perfectly good, it now is apt to make you sick.

For the first time since World War II, Congress last week took a step toward freshening up those laws. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration new authority to set standards and order recalls of tainted foods.

The past few years have seen a near-constant procession of high-profile food-safety problems: chocolate chip cookie dough laced with e. coli; peanut butter spiked with salmonella; spinach, tomatoes, cilantro, Mexican and Chinese candies, bean sprouts, powdered milk, pet food and imported shrimp have been recalled.

The bill approved last week contains several important new protections for consumers.

Federal safety inspections would be increased from once every 10 years to at least once every three years. So-called high-risk facilities would be inspected at least once a year.

Federal officials would have the authority to order food recalls. Now, they only can request that manufacturers voluntarily recall tainted products.

The FDA would be allowed to set standards for safe food-handling procedures on farms and in processing plants and to make sure they are followed. Food importers would have to meet the same standards as domestic producers.

Most important, the bill requires the FDA to create a system through which contaminated food could be traced to its source within two business days. It took weeks to pinpoint the source in some recent outbreaks, by which time thousands more people had been exposed to tainted products.

Finally, food processors and importers would be required to register each year. It's impossible to inspect facilities you don't know about or to order recalls if you don't know where products come from.

When it comes to safety, the stakes are high. It is estimated that 76 million Americans contract a food-borne illness each year; most cases are mild, but an estimated 325,000 people are hospitalized and about 5,000 die as a result.

The Food Safety Enhancement Act approved in the House last week isn't a perfect solution. It provides the FDA with new authority, and Congress recently drastically increased the agency's budget.

But for years, the FDA and its food-safety programs were starved of resources. There's no guarantee that problem won't recur when the headlines fade.

When the FDA was created more than a century ago, most Americans ate food that was produced relatively close to where they lived. Today, food on the table comes from around the globe. The FDA still doesn't have the resources to inspect more than a fraction of the improted food.

Even with the changes, oversight of food safety is split between too many federal and state agencies. That creates inefficiencies and loopholes.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible both for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry and for promoting the farms and ranches that produce it. That seems like an inherent conflict.

Still, the House bill represents the strongest effort to improve food safety in years. It now heads to the Senate, where a vote is expected sometime next month. Senators should approve it.




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