New food safety bill helps, but we need more

August 07, 2009

New food safety bill helps, but we need more

H.R. 2749 is “an act to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to improve the safety of food in the global market, and for other purposes.” Officially know as the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, this bill largely focuses on prevention, which is good but just one part of the equation. The government has come under severe criticisms over what happens after a food safety problem has been identified, and this bill does little to address that.

This bill proposes the first major overhaul of food laws since 1938 when Congress gave the FDA the power to oversee the safety of most foods as well as drugs and cosmetics.

No surprise. As expected, the government is reaching its hand out and asking food companies to foot the bill. H.R. 2749 calls for a $500 yearly registration fee to supplement funding inspections, enforcement, and food safety research. There are an estimated 350,000 facilities worldwide that would be subject to the fee; translating to some $175 million.

Food manufacturers would be required to identify risks, create controls to prevent or reduce possible contamination, monitor the controls to ensure effectiveness and update regularly. Interestingly enough, similar controls have been mandatory for the seafood and juice industries since the ‘90s and are thought to have reduced food safety problems and recalls.

H.R. 2749 mandates the inspection of high-risk facilities every 6-12 months and low-risk facilities at least once every three years; a major improvement to the current once every 10-year FDA inspection record.  

Country of origin labeling would also receive an upgrade. Facilities would have to disclose the final country of processing or growing on the food label, and if there are multi ingredients, the country of origin for each ingredient must be listed on the company’s website.  

But the biggest change is that the FDA would be able to recall food based on suspected contamination instead of the current voluntary recall method by food manufacturers; as well as allowing FDA to quarantine an entire geographic area in order to block distribution of suspect food. The FDA can declare foods adulterated or misbranded if the grower or manufacturer fails to follow safety standards regardless of whether the food is actually tainted. The FDA would also be allowed to issue civil and criminal penalties on a case-by-case basis. 

Now the bad news. USDA regulated products are exempt: meat, poultry and egg products (the foods thought to be the root of most evil food borne illnesses). Farms, restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, vending machines, and non-profit food establishments are also exempt; their commonality and FDA reason for exemption? At least half of the food is prepared for or served directly to consumers.  Distilled spirits, wine, and malt beverage manufacturers are also exempt.  

The next steps. Step one is a unified, one-agency that is responsible for food safety for all foods no matter where sold or produced. Step two is smart, instant communication that alerts retailers and consumers to a food recall. Our mobile devices can now pinpoint exactly where Ashton and Demi are, so can't we do better on food recalls?