Freshening up food safety laws
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
— 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
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.