Food safety to be strengthened in US, regulator to receive power boost

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 5th March 2009

New legislation has been introduced in a bid to strengthen the powers of America’s food safety regulator in the wake of two major food contamination issues in the past year.

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin, Judd Gregg, Ted Kennedy and Richard Burr announced the legislation that they believe will dramatically improve the way the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) protects the safety of the nation’s food supply. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act will give the FDA new authorities, tools and resources to comprehensively reform the nation’s food safety systems.

“Over the last year we’ve seen major recalls of peanut butter spiked with salmonella, spinach laced with e-coli and chili loaded with botulism,” Mr Durbin said. “These are not isolated incidents and are the result of an outdated, under-funded and overwhelmed food safety system. Today’s bipartisan bill will improve the FDA’s ability to prevent food-borne illness outbreaks and ensure FDA responds quickly and effectively when outbreaks do occur.”

The legislation follows closely on the heels of one of the largest food recalls in American history. In January, the FDA announced the voluntary recall of Salmonella-tainted peanut products, after hundreds of people nationwide were sickened. To date, nine people have died and more than 677 people have been sickened – half of which are children – in more than forty states.

The bill increases the frequency of inspections at all food facilities; giving the FDA expanded access to records and testing results, and allowing the FDA to recall dangerous food products in the event a company fails to recall a product at the FDA’s request.

Food safety experts note that had any of these provisions been in place, the scope of the recent Salmonella outbreak could have been drastically reduced and the FDA’s response time, dramatically improved.

“Americans spend more than $1 trillion on food each year-when families go to the local restaurant or to the grocery story, or when children go to school, they shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they will become ill from the food they eat,” Senator Gregg stated. “Recent outbreaks of food-borne illness and nationwide recalls of contaminated food from both domestic and foreign sources highlight the need for Congress to act to modernise and strengthen our nation’s food safety laws.”

The bipartisan bill focuses on four key areas where FDA’s authorities and resources need to be improved: food-borne illness prevention; food-borne illness detection and response; food defense capabilities; and overall resources. Specifically, the bill:

Improves the Capacity to Prevent Food Safety Problems

* Hazard analysis and preventive controls: Requires all facilities to have in place preventive plans to address identified hazards and prevent adulteration, and gives FDA access to these plans and relevant documentation.

* Access to records: Expands FDA access to records in a food emergency.

* Third party labs and audits: Allows FDA to recognise laboratory accreditation bodies to ensure U.S. food testing labs meet high quality standards and requires food testing performed by these labs to be reported to FDA. Allows FDA to enable qualified 3rd parties to certify that foreign food facilities comply with U.S. food safety standards.

* Imports: Requires importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food. Allows FDA to require certification for high-risk foods, and to deny entry to a food that lacks certification or that is from a foreign facility that has refused U.S. inspectors.

Improves the Capacity to Detect and Respond to Food-borne Illness Outbreaks

* Inspection – Increases FDA inspections at all food facilities, including annual inspections of high-risk facilities and inspections of other facilities at least once every four years.

* Surveillance — Enhances food-borne illness surveillance systems to improve the collection, analysis, reporting, and usefulness of data on food-borne illnesses.

* Traceability – Requires the Secretary of HHS to establish a pilot project to test and evaluate new methods for rapidly and effectively tracking/tracing fruits and vegetables in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak.

* Mandatory Recall – Gives FDA the authority to order a mandatory recall of a food product when a company fails to voluntarily recall the product upon FDA’s request.

* Suspension of Registration – Empowers FDA to suspend a food facility’s registration if there is a reasonable probability that food from the facility will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.

Enhances U.S. Food Defense Capabilities – Directs FDA to help food companies protect their products from intentional contamination and calls for a national strategy to protect the food supply from terrorist threats and rapidly respond to food emergencies.

Increases FDA Resources – Increases funding for FDA’s food safety activities through increased appropriations and targeted fees for domestic and foreign facilities.

“The FDA has traditionally been a regulatory agency that responds when there are problems. And what we have recognised is that that’s not good enough anymore,” Dr Stephen Sundlof, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told CBS.