Food Safety Overhaul Passes Senate

Food safety  inspector checks applesLandmark food safety reform legislation that aims to curb the incidence of food recalls, foodborne illnesses and shoddy practices by American food producers and importers passed the U.S. Senate with broad bipartisan support today and is awaiting final approval by the House of Representatives before it is signed into law.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which has been stalled in the Senate for more than a year due to influential agribusiness interests, overhauls 70 years of antiquated laws and poor record of inspections by regulators. The bill, backed by a who's who of consumer and industry organizations, requires high-risk producers to be inspected much more frequently, vests the FDA with recall authority and sets rigorous standards for food safety at farms and factories.It is not uncommon for many peanut butter factories, spinach fields and egg farms to go without an FDA inspection for five to 10 years. Under existing law, the agency also lacks power to mandate recalls of contaminated foods; it can only ask companies to withdraw their products voluntarily.

"Everyone who eats will benefit from this historic legislation," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that has prodded Washington to update food safety laws for more than a decade. "Preventing contamination in the first place is paramount to reducing the health care and economic costs that are caused when unsafe food makes people sick."

Every year, more than 300,000 Americans end up in the hospital and nearly 5,000 die from foodborne illness -- the result of about 76 million illnesses spawned by contaminated food. According to the Centers for Disease Control, that's despite the fact that the food supply in the United States is one of the safest in the world.

"Powerful economic interests blocked reform in the past, but with recent food scares getting scarier, these interests finally agreed to compromise legislation," Michele Simon, a health policy expert and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, told Consumer Ally.

A September survey of 1,700 scientists who work with the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed the majority of them believe public health has been harmed by practices that defer to business interests. The survey, by the Union of Concerned Scientists, showed that at least a quarter of government employees have personally experienced corporate pressure on their agency to either withdraw or significantly modify actions designed to protect consumers.

The total pricetag of foodborne illness in the U.S. is $152 billion a year, according to former FDA economist Robert Scharff, who released this analysis for the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University.

In a sign that overhaul of food safety laws was near, a revamp of the FDA's legal authority and duties passed the House in July 2009, but has languished in the Senate since. In the 16-month period since the lower chamber approved the Food Safety Enhancement Act, companies have issued at least 85 recalls -- 14 of them nationwide -- and more than 1,850 consumers have been sickened, says the CSPI. Further, 42% of the recalls were due to salmonella and 38% to listeria, a study by the Consumer Federation of America showed.

Recent food recalls have included cheeses, cold cuts, tuna steak, romaine lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and, most notably, some 500 million eggs that sickened more than 1,500 people.

Earlier this year, a damning report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council warned that the FDA's ability to spot threats to food safety and prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness is hampered by its inefficient use of limited resoruces and a reactive rather than proactive approach to addressing problems.

"Americans will continue to suffer from food illness, unless the FDA reevaluates their approach to food safety management," the report concluded.

More than 30 groups supported the bill, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Consumer Federation of America; Consumer's Union; Food Marketing Institute; Grocery Manufacturers of America; National Restaurant Association; PEW Charitable Trust; Safe Tables are Our Priority (STOP); Sargento; and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US-PIRG).

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