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

January 7, 2013 10:00 AM

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.

United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group for the fruit and vegetable industry, said it’s reviewing the proposed regulations and will work with the FDA and others to ensure the final rules are "practical and effective."

‘Big Step’

The regulations are subject to a 120-day public comment period and may change before taking effect.

"The FDA knows that food safety, from farm to fork, requires partnership with industry, consumers, local, state and tribal governments, and our international trading partners," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, said in the statement. "Our proposed rules reflect the input we have received from these stakeholders and we look forward to working with the public as they review the proposed rules."

Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, said the proposed rules will encompass preventive control for food facilities and a produce safety rule that covers growing and packing of fruits and vegetables on farms.

"These are two real substantive rules that aim for prevention and protection of the food supply," Taylor said in an interview. "It’s a big step."

Limited Enforcement

The produce rule attempts to address water quality, worker hygiene, materials that are put into the soil and animals that enter growing fields, Taylor later said on a conference call with reporters. The FDA attempted to tailor the regulations, for example, differentiating between water used on crops and otherwise and between produce consumers typically eat raw and those such as potatoes and artichokes that are cooked, he said.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, said that while the proposed rules are a sign of progress, there are still overdue regulations that should be released to ensure the safety of imported food.

"Americans want to know that the food coming from China, Mexico, and elsewhere is subject to the same standards, inspection, testing, and other regulatory improvements mandated for the domestic food industry," Caroline Smith DeWaal, the consumer group’s food safety director, said.

The FDA said it will issue additional rules related to verifying that food products from overseas are as safe as domestic products, and to accreditation standards for third- party food safety audits overseas.

One of the biggest challenges for the government is how to enforce the new rules amid budget constraints.

"FDA may do some inspections but we have limited resources to do inspections," Taylor told reporters on the conference call. "We expect much of the oversight to come at the state and local level." 

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