Editorial: An appetite for change in food safety

Source of Article:  http://www.mlive.com/opinion/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2009/08/editorial_an_appetite_for_chan.html

rand Rapids Press Editorial Board

Tuesday August 25, 2009, 9:00 AM

People should not have to wonder if the food they eat will put them in the hospital or worse, the grave. But a series of food-related illnesses have given many in the nation reason to pause. A better system is needed to protect the public. A bill that gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more power and tools is a step in the right direction. The Senate should make its passage and a less vulnerable food system a top priority.

Just last month, Nestle USA recalled refrigerated cookie dough after regulators found evidence of E. coli in a production sample. More than 66 people became ill (none in Michigan). Earlier this year, Georgia-based Peanut Corporation of America shipped tainted peanuts, which were tied to more than 900 salmonella illnesses, including 38 in Michigan, and nine deaths. Before that, there were salmonella outbreaks involving peppers, pistachios and spinach. The list goes on and on, each case eroding public confidence.

Companies must be made to address red flags about safety before they become a threat. Right now, the FDA doesn't have the authority to require a safety plan, order the testing of a product or demand a recall when a company is slow to react to an obvious problem. That's disturbing, given that the agency is responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the nation's food supply. But the Senate can fix this glaring problem. The House approved legislation last month that tackles some flaws in the system.

Under the legislation, the FDA would have the power to issue a mandatory recall, instead of just urging companies after people have fallen ill. Food production companies would also have to develop and initiate food safety plans, including risk assessments, preventive measures and corrective steps.

The FDA could require a product be tested and have access to the records of tests done. The peanut plant was not required to inform the FDA or Georgia food-safety regulators that its product had initially tested positive for contamination before it secured a negative test. That's a dangerous loophole.

Inspections would also increase under the measure. Currently, some facilities may go a decade before undergoing a federal inspection. The FDA would be required to inspect facilities deemed high-risk -- those with a history of food-safety problems or those that handle products that spoil easily -- every six to 12 months. Lower-risk plants would be inspected at least once every three years. A process would be created to make it easier to track the source of contamination. The understaffed agency would also get more inspectors.

The legislation won't solve all the nation's food safety problems, but it is a necessary start. The FDA regulates most foods, though as many as 15 federal agencies are involved in food safety. The Agriculture Department inspects meats, poultry and some eggs.

The Senate will need to address a couple legitimate concerns to ensure the legislation does not overreach. For example, the bill has been tweaked once regarding concerns from members of the House that it would be too invasive on farms.

The Senate has a full plate with health care reform and cap and trade, but strengthening the safety of the nation's food supply to curb illnesses and deaths should be served up soon.

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