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Food Safety Bill Focuses on Prevention, Creates Recall Power

December 22, 2010 at 3:27 PM EST
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A new food safety bill was among the last-minute actions in Congress this week. Jeffrey Brown gets details on what's in the bill and how it could impact farmers, food processors and regulators.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now we turn to another of the last-minute actions in Congress: the overhaul of food safety regulations.

Foodborne illness remains a major problem in the U.S. One in six Americans becomes ill from tainted food each year. Three thousand people die. The new law comes after a series of outbreaks linked to spinach, peanuts, eggs, and other foods. Among other things, it gives the FDA the power to issue recalls, do more inspections, and for the first time would require food importers to verify their products meet U.S. safety standards.

Erik Olson of the Pew Charitable Trust was one of those who worked with Congress to shape the legislation. And he joins us now.

Welcome to you.

ERIK OLSON, Pew Health Group: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a general proposition, this is aimed at moving towards more prevention, rather than reacting, right?

ERIK OLSON: That’s right.

In the past, really for the past 70-plus years, we have been detectives chasing down illnesses after they occur and trying to figure out what the contamination was caused by. This whole process is going to change, so that we will be preventing illnesses, we will be preventing contamination before the contaminated food gets onto the grocery shelves.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, now, before we get to the new rules, let’s be clear, so people understand what is covered and what is not, because this is a complicated regulatory system, and always has been.

ERIK OLSON: It is somewhat complicated.

But, basically, about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply will be covered by this legislation. Meat and poultry are not protected under the legislation. That’s regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This legislation affects the Food and Drug Administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s due to historical reasons, right? But that doesn’t change?

ERIK OLSON: That’s right. It doesn’t change the historical division of labor that’s been true since 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt signed the original laws.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now let’s look at some of these changes. One is, the FDA will have the authority to recall food, rather than, in the past, what, they had to wait for voluntary action by companies.

ERIK OLSON: That’s right. And most people don’t realize this, but FDA has never had the authority to require food companies to recall contaminated food.

So, they have had to ask for voluntary recalls. And, usually, the companies would comply with that. But this gives them in their back pocket the authority to force a recall if it’s necessary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another thing, that companies will now have to develop written safety plans that the FDA can oversee? How does that — what does that mean?

ERIK OLSON: That’s right.

Right now, we don’t have a requirement that there be a prevention-based system for food processors or for the people that are growing our food. This will change. There will be a new requirement that FDA will oversee to make sure that a food manufacturer has a plan in place to make sure that the contamination never gets into the food, so that we’re not having the recalls that we seem to be having almost weekly in past years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about inspections? What has been the rule up to now, and what changes?

ERIK OLSON: In the past, and, in fact, to this day, on average, FDA is only able to do inspections about once every 10-and-a-half years. So, obviously, a lot of problems have cropped up in between those inspections.

This new legislation will ramp up a new requirement, so that there will be much more frequent inspections, based on the risk presented by the facility. The riskier the facility, the more frequent the inspections will be required.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that requires more inspectors, presumably?

ERIK OLSON: We presume that FDA is going to have to hire a lot more inspectors. Obviously, how effective this ends up being is going to depend upon the resources that FDA gets in the next appropriation cycle.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what has been the history of FDA’s resources?

ERIK OLSON: Well, FDA has always been underfunded in this area. In the recent few years, there’s been some increase in FDA’s food budget. But it’s clear that, with all these new authorities, the first overhaul in over 70 years, it’s going to require that FDA have the resources to back up its muscle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, before I get to the import side of this, there are some exceptions, right, for smaller producers, smaller farms?

ERIK OLSON: That’s right.

There is what’s called the Tester amendment that was added in the Senate, and made it into the final law, that will exempt very small producers from certain of the requirements. It was something that was somewhat controversial in both the House and the Senate. We think it will only exempt a very small percentage of the food supply. And, overall, just about everything in most grocery stores is going to be covered by this legislation, except for the meat and poultry.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what was the thinking on exempting the smaller ones? And this is — this includes if you go to your farmers market or something, right?

ERIK OLSON: That’s right. It will exempt a lot of the food that is sold in farmers market, for example, or very…

JEFFREY BROWN: And the reason?

ERIK OLSON: The argument was that small farmers are not able to comply with the same kinds of standards that are applied to very large farmers. It wasn’t something that we sought out. But through the process in the Senate, it was necessary to get the legislation passed.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now the import side, as I said, the first time they’d have to verify that it meets U.S. safety standards, how important is that?

ERIK OLSON: That’s right. That is going to be one of the biggest changes in this legislation, because it will have global impact.

What it does is every supplier that is importing food into the United States is going to have to certify that that food was produced consistent with U.S. law. That is going to back up the chain all the way into China and India and all over the world. We import food from over 170 countries.

It will mean that thousands of facilities across the world are going to have to comply with these new U.S. requirements.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when does all this go into effect, and how hard is it to implement it, something like that especially, when you’re talking about a global impact?

ERIK OLSON: Well, we have waited over 70 years for this kind of update. So, it’s going to take a little bit of time before we fully implement it.

Some of these authorities, like the recall authority and FDA’s ability to get in and pull records from these facilities, those are immediate. So, FDA can immediately do those. Some of these are going to require regulations and new policies to be put into place over the next few years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just in our last minute, this came together with a fairly broad coalition, I gather, but there was some opposition.

Coming in January, there will be a Republican-led House. And these questions of where the money comes from will come back. So, is there more to come here?

ERIK OLSON: There is more to come. But this was a very unusual piece of legislation. It had very broad support from Democrats, conservative Republicans. It had a lot of industry support from the food industry, Grocery Manufacturers Association, and many consumer and other groups.

So, it had a broad coalition of support. And we expect that same broad coalition is going to be supporting resources for FDA in the coming Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Erik Olson, thank you very much.

ERIK OLSON: Thank you for having me.