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Food-Safety Law Starts to Kick in Two Years After Outbreaks

January 7, 2013

Copyright 2013 Bloomberg.

By Anna Edney and Stephanie Armour

A federal food safety law passed two years ago after poisonings sickened hundreds of Americans is finally being implemented by the Obama administration.

One of two regulatory proposals issued Friday to carry out the core of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act would give companies that sell in the U.S. one year to develop a formal plan for preventing the causes of foodborne illness. The second would force produce farms with a "high risk" of contamination to develop new hygiene, soil and temperature controls.

The law is the biggest change to food industry oversight since 1938. It was prompted, in part, by recalls of tainted cookie dough, spinach, jalapenos and peanuts that killed at least nine people and sickened more than 700 in 2008 and 2009. Companies and farmers may need to spend as much as $1.1 billion a year to meet the requirements, U.S. health officials said.

The act "shifts the food safety focus from reactive to preventive," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. "We are establishing a science- based, flexible system to better prevent foodborne illness."

The rules for produce farms will prevent 1.75 million foodborne illnesses at a cost of $460 million a year for domestic farms and $171 million for foreign growers, the Food and Drug Administration estimated. The proposal mandating formal prevention plans may cost as much as $475 million annually depending on how a small business is defined, the FDA said.

Role Model

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington-based trade group that represents ConAgra Foods Inc. and Kraft Foods Group Inc., said the law "ensures that prevention is the cornerstone of our nation’s food-safety strategy."

"It places new responsibilities on food and beverage manufacturers and provides the FDA with the resources and authorities it needs to further strengthen our nation’s food safety net," Pamela Bailey, the group’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. "FSMA and its implementation effort can serve as a role model for what can be achieved when the private and public sectors work together to achieve a common goal."

The rules were proposed two years to the day after President Barack Obama signed the bill that gave the FDA more power to police domestic and international producers, carry out inspections and force recalls of tainted products in an effort to steer government food-safety oversight toward preventing contamination rather than responding once problems occur.

48 Million Cases

Over the past two decades, the food industry has taken on much of the FDA’s role in ensuring that what Americans eat is safe, a Bloomberg Markets magazine report in November showed. The agency can’t oversee its jurisdiction of $1.2 trillion in annual food sales, leading to an audit system that gave sterling marks to a cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant -- either before or right after they supplied toxic food, according to the report.

Almost 48 million people contract foodborne illnesses in the U.S. each year, leading to 130,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The law’s supporters say it will curb those illnesses, which cost the U.S. an estimated $152 billion a year.

The rules "really go to the heart of the problems we’ve had with food safety in recent years," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at the Yonkers, New York-based advocacy group Consumers Union.

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