Uncle Sam tries two initiatives for food safety

By Russ Van Arsdale Executive director Northeast Contact, Special to the BDN
Posted Sept. 20, 2009, at 6:56 p.m.

A couple of new federal efforts are intended to improve food safety, although some critics say one of those initiatives may be less effective than advertised.

One change, announced just a couple of weeks ago, takes the form of a Web site putting all food-related information in one place (http://www.foodsafety.gov). The federal Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture list their recall and contamination advisories there, along with tips on ways to handle food safely.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says the information should help consumers who have been concerned about product recalls. That number likely includes most of us.

The other initiative was announced just a day earlier, when the FDA issued stricter rules for reporting potential contamination. The Reportable Food Registry, as advertised on the FDA Web site, accepts reports of suspected problems only from companies that manufacture, process, pack or hold foods that fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction. It also can take concerns from federal, state and local public health officials.

Unlike problems reported by consumers, when contaminated food has already made its way into the marketplace, the Reportable Food Registry is aimed at heading off problems that have become far too common.

The database was created as part of a law Congress passed in 2007, after a chorus of complaints about the FDA’s handling of safety problems involving both food and drugs. While the effort has been well-received generally, it is not without its critics.

The new law puts the onus on the manufacturer to report any problems, real or suspected, within 24 hours of detecting that problem or potential problem. Some on the manufacturing side complain that such a requirement would force them to add expensive steps to uncover problems.

They wonder what might happen if manufacturers simply look the other way, to avoid such expenses. Some producers worry about erroneous reporting and confidentiality issues.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association raised the issue of a parent company’s duty to report if a problem turned up at a manufacturer the parent uses, or if a problem is reported by a consumer. Also, should a food maker report a “presumptive positive,” or wait until a suspected problem is confirmed? The food maker suggested that a guidance document from the FDA didn’t address such questions.

The FDA came up with the kind of answer federal regulators often employ: delay. While the new law took effect Sept. 8, and food makers are supposed to be paying attention, the feds say they will likely exercise discretion in enforcing all provisions until Dec. 8. They will use carrots rather than sticks — for 90 days — if FDA determines that a “responsible party” has made a “reasonable effort to comply” with the requirements of the new law.

All of which may make us feel only marginally safer. Still, with all the media attention on food recalls, it’s fair to assume at least some segments of the food industry are under more scrutiny than ever. We hope that added scrutiny results in safer food in our marketplaces.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/09/20/business/uncle-sam-tries-two-initiatives-for-food-safety/ printed on December 26, 2014