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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, December/January 2011

Food Safety Legislation: It's Alive!

by Patrick McGee

PATRICK McGEE

Talk about bad timing. In last issue’s letter, which I wrote the day after the GOP spanked Democrats in the recent mid-term election, I pronounced food safety legislation, specifically the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), effectively dead.

I argued that with the GOP’s massive gains in the House, scuttling the Obama administration’s healthcare reform would be the first order of business, and S. 510 would wither on the vine.

Boy, was I wrong. A few weeks after I wrote that letter, on November 30, the Senate approved the biggest overhaul of our nation’s food safety laws in 70 years.

A House vote for final passage of the Senate’s version of the bill has not yet been scheduled, an aide to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), told CNN Online. House leaders have indicated they would accept the Senate version of the bill so that it can be sent to President Obama and signed into law by the end of the lame-duck session.

“It’s an unusual and shining example of how bipartisanship can work in Congress,” Erik Olson, director of the Pew Health Group food programs, told The Washington Post. “It is a major step forward, protecting the food that everyone eats every day,” added Olson, whose organization led a coalition of consumer groups backing the legislation.

The bill, which passed 73 to 25 with support from both Democrats and Republicans, gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) greatly expanded authority. Designed to be more proactive by making farmers and food manufacturers more responsible for preventing contamination, the bill also calls for more frequent inspections of facilities and gives the FDA greater authority over recalls. It also sets safety standards for the imported foods that play an increasing role in the American diet.

Despite the bill’s passage, many have expressed frustration, saying that it took the Senate too long to act, given the fact that similar legislation, H.R. 2749, was passed by the House in July 2009. Some have argued that the bill passed by the Senate was not as stringent as H.R. 2749.

This September, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and other consumer groups released a report stating that there have been 85 separate recalls linked to at least 1,850 illnesses since the passage of H.R. 2749. Thirty-six of those recalls were due to Salmonella contamination of lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, green onions, and ground pepper, and 32 recalls, mostly contaminated cheeses, were due to Listeria.

“Everyone who eats will benefit from this historic legislation,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, of the recently passed bill. “FDA will have new tools to help ensure that America’s food supply is safer, causing fewer illnesses and deaths. 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.”

Enacting the legislation will no doubt be a challenge, but with President Obama’s signature, we should be well on our way to safer food. And to think it only took 70 years.

Sincerely,
PATRICK McGEE
Editor
pmcgee@wiley.com

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