The House and Senate have both now passed again the Food Safety Modernization Act (a.k.a. "the food safety bill") so this is as good as law. Which is a good thing. The bill isn't perfect; it fails to deal with the competing and often absurdly overlapping jurisdictions of the Food and Drug Administration, responsible for 80% of the food supply (including packaged ham sandwiches), and the Department of Agriculture, responsible for the other 20% (including open-faced packaged ham sandwiches). That said, here's what we like about the bill:
It's Been 70 Years
The last time the Food and Drug Administration had this kind of attention from Congress, it was 1938, and the poisoning of 100 people from a tainted drug prompted lawmakers to send FDR a bill upgrading the FDA's drug-policing policies. Today, it took a series of high-profile food recalls, including ground beef, spinach, sprouts, peanuts and eggs, but Congress acted to upgrade the FDA's ability to police the food supply, while handing more responsibility for a safe food supply to those who grow and make the nation's food.
It Should Save Lives
You usually can't tell if a food is contaminated. It might look and smell fine, and still kill you. Every year about 5,000 U.S. residents die of food-borne illness, and hundreds of thousands are sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By requiring food processing facilities to implement food safety plans, and requiring the FDA to make more frequent inspections, the bill should stop more outbreaks before they start. "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," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Bad Food Will Be Recalled More Quickly
Many Americans are unaware of this, but we rely on the good nature (or fear of litigation) of farmers and food manufacturers every time we hear of another recall. The FDA has had no authority to trace the source of an outbreak, or to order a recall when it detects contaminants in the food supply. (Recently, the Estrella Family Creamery, an artisan cheese maker in Washington state, refused an FDA request to recall its cheeses, after Listeria was detected in some samples.) The bill changes that, handing the FDA authority to find the source, and order recalls.
Even Foreign Food Must Meet U.S. Standards
Foreign food processing plants now send food to the U.S. without undergoing the same scrutiny from FDA inspectors that U.S. plants get. And there are a lot of foreign food processing plants 440,000 in 170 countries, according to a 2007 tally. The bill will start routine inspections abroad to ensure that all food meets U.S. standards.
It's hard to call anything estimated to cost $300 million cheap. But if you consider the estimated cost of the bill against the cost of treating people who die or get sick from food-borne illnesses estimated at $152 billion (with a "b") annually then it turns the "cost" into an investment with a quick and lucrative return, measured in both lives and dollars. "Compared with those amounts, this bill is a real bargain," wrote food advocates Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.