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The Daily Need

A look at the long-awaited food safety bill

Photo: Flickr/Lou Bueno

In response to the approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year due to foodborne illnesses, the Senate finally passed the nation’s first food safety bill. The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to stop outbreaks of sickness from unsafe foods before they arrive on kitchen tables. Currently the FDA can only order voluntary recalls, but under the new bill, the FDA would have the authority to require farmers and food processors to explain how they are working to keep their food safe at different stages of production and demand a recall if the food is tainted.

The $1.4 billion bill, which would also place stricter standards on imported foods, passed the Senate by a vote of 73 to 25. The bill still needs to be approved by the House, which passed its own bill last year.

Although the bill would affect about 80 percent of the food supply, it does not apply to meat. Need to Know asked David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), why meat was left out and other questions about the bill (S. 510). CSPI is a nonprofit consumer advocacy and education organization that focuses largely on food safety and nutrition issues. The group supported the bill.

Jackie Pou: Why doesn’t the bill include the regulation of meat and poultry?

David Plunkett: Meat and poultry are regulated by USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture]. FDA shares regulation of eggs with USDA. Since S. 510 is about fixing problems with the 70-year-old law that FDA operates under, it does not cover USDA regulated foods.

Pou: How will the new bill bring together the alphabet soup of agencies that regulate food such as the USDA and FDA?

Plunkett: S. 510 does not create a single food safety agency. There are up to 13 different federal agencies with some responsibility for food safety. That can cause some issues to slip through the cracks (as we recently saw with the egg recall). While S. 510 only deals with foods regulated by FDA, it still provides for better coordination between FDA and USDA (farm products) and FDA and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] (seafood). These are helpful steps and, when combined with requirements for FDA to coordinate better with state food safety agencies, place our food safety system in a much less fractured posture.

Pou: What kind of authority will the new bill give the FDA? Will we see less recalled foods?

Plunkett: Hopefully that will be the result. By requiring companies to build prevention into their processing of food, we should have fewer incidents of contaminated food reaching consumers. The requirements for companies to verify that their processes are safe may lead to some recalls, but in some cases the problems will be identified before people get sick. For those instances where contaminated food reaches consumers, the bill improves surveillance so that the contaminated food is found faster and can be removed before large numbers of people get sick.

Pou: Why did it take this long for the bill to pass?

Plunkett: The bill represents the first major reform of FDA’s food safety law since 1938, and it regulates 80 percent of the food supply. There were a number of reasons for the bill taking so long to pass, but mainly it is because this is a complex bill that affects many different stakeholders. Getting it done right is more important than getting it done quickly.

Pou: How does this bill affect small farms?

Plunkett: The bill allows FDA to set produce safety standards for high-risk fruits and vegetables. However, it has a number of provisions to ensure that small farms can comply without difficulty. Also, small farms can choose to be exempt if they are smaller than $500,000 in sales and mainly sell directly to consumers. Meanwhile small farms that choose to comply with the safety standards, will have clear guidance from FDA on how to ensure the safety of the food they harvest for sale to the public. That will benefit the farms and the consumers who buy from those farms.

Pou: The House version of the bill actually required more inspections, why does the Senate version include fewer inspections than the house version?

Plunkett: The Senate was under pressure to hold down the impact of the bill on the nation’s deficit. While the House bill provided for a registration fee to offset the costs of food safety activities (including inspections), no such fee is included in the Senate bill. Without the additional resources to pay for them, the inspection rates had to be reduced. Even so, the rates in the bill will mean that food will be inspected more frequently than once in 10 years — as currently happens. Also, inspections of the 230,000 foreign plants registered with FDA will increase over five years from 600 to almost 10,000 each year.

Pou: How will the FDA determine which foods require inspection?

Plunkett: FDA is to inspect all the foods it regulates. The agency is also required to conduct risk-based inspections, which means that foods that pose a greater risk are inspected more frequently. FDA is to determine the risk by considering known risks associated with the food, compliance history of the facility producing the food and the effectiveness of the facility’s food safety plan, among other factors.

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