Improving Food Safety

Posted Aug. 14, 2009, at 6:04 p.m.

A bill passed by the House last week that requires more frequent inspection of food processing facilities and expands the government’s authority to mandate recalls is an important step forward. Ensuring the new regulations do not overly burden small farms, especially organic ones, remains a concern.

The Food Safety Enhancement Act comes in response to a number of food-borne illness outbreaks. Late last year, 20,000 people were sickened and eight died after eating peanut butter contaminated with salmonella. The Georgia plant where the contamination occurred had a long history of problems and federal officials had to rely on a bioterrorism law, not food safety regulations, to get records from the company.

A major problem is lack of inspections. According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of Food and Drug Administration inspectors decreased by more than 400 between 2003 and 2007 while the number of businesses needing oversight grew by more than 7,000. As a result, many plant inspections are carried out by state officials, or not done at all.

The Food Safety Act would require that high-risk facilities — those with past problems or that handle items most susceptible to contamination, such as raw seafood — be inspected by the FDA every six to 12 months. Lower-risk facilities would be inspected every 18 months to three years.

More important, the FDA, which is in charge of about 80 percent of food inspections — the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of meat and dairy products — would have the authority to order recalls. Now it only can encourage companies to pull tainted products.

The legislation also requires development of a system to trace food items from growers to distributors so the origin of products can easily be known. While this traceability can be helpful, the reporting and tracking burden for small farms could be problematic.

That’s why 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, a former organic farmer, voted against the bill.

“While I appreciate the efforts made to improve food safety … I could not vote for the bill because it would unfairly and unreasonably burden small farmers,” she said after the vote. “Maine has a long tradition of small farms producing high-quality, wholesome food, and legislation that might make it difficult for them to survive and prosper would be counterproductive to our efforts to improve our nation’s food supply.”

Such concerns, as well as the one-size-fits-all idea of charging all food processors $500 to register with the FDA regardless of their size, should be changed by the Senate to improve this needed and overdue legislation.

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