Food Safety Scrambled

Posted Aug. 25, 2010, at 9:26 p.m.

The pattern has become all too familiar: There is an outbreak of food-borne illness, the public demands tougher regulations, Congress pledges action and — nothing happens.

In 2008, it was peanut butter, the year before spinach and jalapenos. Now, eggs. About 1,300 cases of salmonella are thought to be linked to eggs from two facilities in Iowa. A half-billion eggs have been recalled.

“We need better abilities and authorities to put in place these preventive controls and hold companies accountable,” Margaret Hamburg, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Monday.

Some of those abilities and authorities are contained in a food safety bill that is stalled in Congress. It was passed by the House of Representatives in July 2009. It has sat in the Senate since then.

The bill would provide for more FDA inspectors and give the agency the power to mandate recalls.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of FDA 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 Modernization Act has already been watered down on this front. An earlier version called for inspections of high-risk facilities every six to 12 months. Lower-risk facilities were to be inspected every 18 months to three years.

To reduce the cost of the bill, inspections were cut to once every five years for high-risk plants and once every seven years for others. Given the frequency of food-borne illness outbreaks, this is a dangerous change that should be reconsidered, especially in light of the current egg recall.

On a positive note, the legislation would give the FDA, which is in charge of about 80 percent of food inspections (the U.S. Department of Agriculture handles meat), the authority to order recalls. Now it only can encourage companies to pull tainted products.

Concerns that the new rules would be too burdensome on small farms and organic growers have been addressed.

Consumers rely on the federal government to ensure the safety of our food. The FDA and USDA need new and better tools to do this work. Passing the Food Safety Modernization Act will provide some of those tools.

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