On Tuesday, Congress passed food safety legislation providing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with new powers. Trying to halt a series of disease outbreaks in the nation’s food supply – and fresh off last summer’s salmonella outbreak and subsequent recall of 500 million eggs – the lame-duck Congress was under pressure to pump up the FDA’s inspection capabilities.
And so it did. In essence, the FDA is now charged with preventing food-borne disease outbreaks rather than trying to contain them once rampant.
Under the new law -- among other new and expanded abilities -- the FDA will be allowed to employ food recalls, access records at both farms and processing centers, and set quality standards for imported produce. In the FDA’s freshly-calibrated crosshairs are salmonella and E. coli and, therefore, a stepped-up inspection regime for all manner of products prone to bacterial contamination.
“The food safety bill will provide … improved tools to prevent food-borne illness and address challenges in the food safety system by promoting a prevention-oriented approach,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack after the House passed the bill on a 215 to 144 vote. “Protecting consumers from harm is a fundamental function of government and with passage of this landmark food safety legislation USDA remains committed to keeping food safety a top priority.”
The USDA will continue to be responsible for inspections of beef, pork and poultry.
A common talking point on Capitol Hill is that the food safety legislation is the most significant in 70 years. Early readers of the bill (expected to cost around $1.5 billion over four years) claim the FDA is now charged with holding imported food to the same standards as food produced in-country.
However, left unaddressed amid the post-vote afterglow is the woeful record of the government in inspecting aquaculture imports. Despite proclaiming food safety paramount, for years the U.S. government has been inspecting only around two percent of such imports annually.
A reluctance by the Bush and Obama administrations to allow inspections to move from the FDA to USDA (as was mandated by Congress in the last farm bill) has allowed untold numbers of Americans to be exposed to a wide array of contaminants and carcinogens picked up in Vietnamese and Chinese operations. Such porous inspections have also severely harmed U.S. catfish farmers, who must abide by regulations, and the resulting expenses, that their Asian counterparts are unburdened with.
Regardless, the food safety bill will allow the FDA to hire some 2,000 new inspectors and more frequent inspections are promised for the agriculture sector – especially larger operations. Smaller operations (less than $500,000 in annual sales) are exempted from the legislation.
Companies now under the new legislation have 18 months to produce their own updated food safety plans, which must then be approved by the FDA. In the meantime, the FDA is expected to write its own set of rules to go along with its newly expanded powers.