man peers into a fridge - food safetyConsumers may not notice many of the changes that are expected to come with the sweeping U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act -- other than a hoped-for drop in the number of those sickened from tainted food.

"The Food Safety Modernization Act is the most significant food safety law of the last 100 years," said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a media briefing today. "It will bring our food safety system into the 21st century ... helping Americans feel confident that when they sit down at the dinner table they won't end up in the hospital."

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law Tuesday, Sebelius said. The act updates and combines a patchwork quilt of laws put into place over the last 70 years.

What the act will do, among other things, is give the FDA recall power -- rather than waiting on companies to initiate a recall which can happen after most of the contaminated food has already been eaten.The act also expands inspection programs, creates standards for food producers and farmers and aims at better tracking of food-borne illness outbreaks. Good thing too -- the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated one in six Americans -- that's 48 million people -- get sick from a food-borne illness each year, not counting those hospitalized (128,000) and the 3,000 deaths.The act will turn the FDA's role from a reactionary government agency to one of prevention, said FDA Commission Margaret A. Hamburg. Along with the recall power, the increased inspections will also be extended to imported foods -- one-sixth of the nation's food supply is imported from 150 countries. Importers will have to prove their products meet the same requirements as food produced here. The FDA will be working with countries on food safety.

"A lot of this will be occurring before the food gets on the table, so it won't be immediately visible," Hamburg said.

But in this dire economic climate, the new act has yet to be funded. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office had estimated the cost of implementing the act at $1.4 billion over five years -- but the "cost of not implementing this law is staggering," said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs at the Pew Health Group. He said a company involved in a peanut recall lost up to $70 million in that recall.

Hamburg said the FDA is optimistic that it will be able to move forward with implementing the act and the most immediate thing consumers will notice is the new power the FDA has to recall products.

A longtime proponent of the measure, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest applauded the act, saying it would mean consumers can shop with greater confidence that their food is safe.

"For far too long, the FDA has been in reactive mode, chasing down contaminated food after people are already sick with e. coli, salmonella, or other dangerous pathogens," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal in a statement.

"Now, by incorporating modern scientific and legal tools, the FDA will put the horse before the cart, requiring food manufacturers and farmers to implement plans aimed at preventing contaminated products. This is the most important food safety advance in 70 years."

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