Consumer groups are citing the 500 million eggs recalled and other recalls in calling today for the U.S. Senate to quit dilly-dallying on improving the country's food safety and make a vote on legislation to raise standards its first priority when it returns to Washington.
They are also warning that the Senate's continuing delay in acting -- the House approved the improvements 13 months ago that give the Food and Drug Administration a big increase in supervisory authority -- has had real impact on consumers of eggs, spices, cheese and many other foods.
"When things go wrong with the food supply, consumers are the last to know, but the first to pay," Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told a Washington press conference today. "We need the U.S. Senate to do its job to make America's food supply better."
She said that in those 13 months, consumers have seen 85 food recalls.
Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate for U.S PIRG, the federation of state public interest groups, said the purpose of the new law is not to increase recalls but to make foods safer so they don't have to be recalled.
"We need a 21st Century program that keeps unsafe foods off the table in the first place,"
The food legislation mandates companies making food do far more in establishing plans to test and monitor the production and distribution of food, gives the FDA additional authority to inspect plants in the U.S. and abroad, and also gives the FDA authority to recall products. After the House approved the legislation and a Senate committee sent it to the Senate floor, questions about the high costs of FDA inspections of plants held up a final vote. Democrats and Republicans recently announced a compromise and the Senate is expected to vote later this month.
If it approves the compromise, differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation need to be resolved.
The consumer groups said they've heard of no opposition to the compromise, but are worried because they've been told before the Senate was on the brink of voting before and because Congress has relatively little time left to pass the legislation and resolve differences before the current Congressional session ends. Failure to act would mean the next Congress has to start over.
Chris Waldrop, director of Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, said his group's study showed that during the delay 85 recalls affecting more than 150 companies were conducted -- 14 of them nationwide
He said 42% were due to salmonella and 38% due to listeria. Products recalled included cheeses, cold cuts, ground pepper (red and black), tuna steaks, shredded romaine lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, shell eggs and dairy products.
He said 1,850 illnesses were reported but suggested that many illnesses are never reported.
Rylee Gustafson, 13, of Henderson, Nev., told the news conference that she suffered temporary blindness and hearing loss after eating contaminated spinach on a trip to a San Francisco aquarium for her ninth birthday.
"I don't want my friends and family to get sick," said the now eighth grader.
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