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The New York Times reports this morning that the US House of Representatives yesterday passed food safety legislation that will increase the ability of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be more aggressive in preventing the outbreak of food-borne illnesses,, as opposed to reacting to tainted food once it is already out in the marketplace.

The bill already has been passed by the US Senate, and it is expected to be signed shortly by President Obama.

As the Times reports, “Under the legislation, food manufacturers will be required to examine their processing systems to identify possible ways that food products can become contaminated and to develop detailed plans to keep that from happening. Companies must share those plans with the F.D.A., and provide the agency with records, including product test results, showing how effectively they carry them out.

“The agency, which has sometimes been criticized for its failure to check up on risky food producers, will be required to conduct more frequent inspections in the United States and abroad. The law will also give the F.D.A. the power to order food recalls. Currently, it can only request a recall, even when there is evidence that tainted food has made people sick or represents a clear health hazard.”

The vote was 215-144.

Even after the bill becomes law, it will take some time for systemic changes to take place. According to the Times story, “While the legislation contains many changes that advocates had long pursued, many of its important provisions, including the requirement that companies put in place food safety plans, do not go into effect for as long as 18 months. The agency will use much of that time to write rules that it needs to carry out the law.

“In addition, the increased inspection of food manufacturers will happen only gradually, with regulators given up to five years to visit high-risk facilities. After that, high-risk plants must be inspected every three years.”

Responses to the passage included:

“For the past several months, there has been one constant related to strengthening our food safety system:  strong bi-partisan support to improve food safety in America.  The results of multiple votes on the Food Safety Modernization Act have been overwhelming in favor of improving our nation’s food safety system and preventing problems before they occur,” said FMI President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie G. Sarasin. “Food retailers and wholesalers believe that given today’s global marketplace, it is critical to provide the FDA with the authority to recall products when necessary.  We also support the use of third-party certification programs and requiring food safety plans for every company manufacturing food. Our customers deserve to have the industry and government working together to ensure the safety of our food supply.”

"We applaud the House for passing The Food Safety Modernization Act – this landmark legislation provides FDA with the resources and authorities the agency needs to help strengthen our nation’s food safety system by making prevention the focus of our food safety strategies,” said GMA President and CEO Pamela G. Bailey.

Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said, "This is a big victory for consumers that finally brings food-safety laws into the 21st century. This win is a powerful testament to the people across the country who came to Washington to tell their lawmakers how contaminated food had killed their loved ones or left them horribly sick. This win is for them and all Americans.  For a long time, we've been saying that we needed to do a better job of making sure our food is safe, and under this bill, we will."

But United Fresh Produce Association Senior Vice President of Public Policy Robert Guenther sounded a cautionary note:

“The good in this bill, however, is still accompanied by the bad, and the Food Safety Modernization Act still contains an amendment from Senators Jon Tester of Montana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina that threatens the health and well-being of a nation of consumers by exempting some producers and processors based only on the size of their business, their geographic location, or to whom they sell their products. This inclusion of exemptions based on non-scientific qualifications will limit the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to assure consumers that all foods they purchase, whether at grocery stores, restaurants, farm markets, or elsewhere, have met the same food safety standards. We remain fearful that this profound error will come back to haunt Congress, public health agencies, and even those who thought they would benefit from food safety exemptions, but more importantly, we are fearful of what may slip through the food safety loopholes created by the Tester/Hagan Amendment and adversely affect consumers in the United States.”
KC's View:
Is the legislation flawed? Sure. I’ll buy that. (Isn’t all legislation flawed? Compromise creates flaws.)

But clearly the food safety system as it has existed is too imperfect for it not to be changed, and we all have to hope that these changes will create a system more responsive and more pro-active.