With an increasingly global food supply chain comes a greater need for regulation and control over the quality of food imported into, and produced in, the United States. Recent E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in household staples such as peanut butter, eggs and spinach have caused nationwide scares and highlighted how easily a tainted food product can cause personal injury.
Keeping Our Food Supply Safe
In an effort to protect the public, Congress is considering a law called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act. The Act would significantly increase the FDA’s power to regulate the production, storage and distribution of food in the United States. The goal is to prevent food borne illnesses from reaching consumers through numerous provisions such as:
- Requiring food manufacturing, processing or packing facilities to have detailed plans to prevent contamination
- Allowing the FDA to conduct detailed safety inspections of food facilities
- Requiring the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture to collaborate on a national food safety plan
- Requiring importers to verify the safety of foreign foods
- Improving the quality of food-borne illness detection systems
- Providing training to help food facilities comply with new regulations
Most importantly, the Act would give the FDA mandatory recall power for food products deemed hazardous to public health. Currently, the FDA can only ask companies to voluntarily recall contaminated products. Unfortunately, many companies do not issue recalls until after many consumers have already become ill.
The Debate in Congress
While many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle believe the Food Safety Modernization Act is critical to protecting the nation’s health, the Act is not without opposition. During a time when budget deficits continue to climb, some senators are calling the increased regulation burdensome and claiming it requires unnecessary spending.
Also contentious is the Act’s provision attempting to fund the FDA’s food safety inspections through fees on the food production facilities themselves. In addition to large facilities being concerned about cutting away at their margins, some smaller, less developed operations fear the fees and new safety requirements will put them out of business altogether.
How the Act Protects Consumers
Despite the cost concerns, there is ample evidence that improved food safety is needed. A December 2010 report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) provides worrisome data regarding the impact of food borne illnesses each year:
- One in six (or 76 million) Americans get sick
- Almost 128,000 people are hospitalized
- Approximately 3,000 people die
Former FDA economist Robert Scharff estimates food-borne illnesses cost the U.S. a total of $152 billion each year. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin said that “If we do not act quickly to modernize our food safety system, millions more Americans will fall ill due to contaminated food, and thousands more will die.” The Food Safety Modernization Act seeks first to prevent the contamination of the U.S. food supply and then be equipped to quickly and effectively address contamination if it occurs.
One of the most powerful provisions of the Act is the mandatory recall power it grants the FDA. Such power will allow quicker reaction time to what can be life-threatening situations.
For example, in January 2009 the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) issued a massive recall of contaminated peanut butter originating in a Georgia manufacturing plant. By the time the voluntary recall was issued, more than 400 people (half of them children) had become ill from salmonella poisoning and five people had died. By the time a second recall was issued two weeks later, nearly 500 people had been sickened in almost every state.
Illnesses related to the peanut butter contamination began in September 2008, but PCA did not issue its voluntary recall for almost another four months. Had the FDA had mandatory recall power at the time, it likely could have prevented many of the illnesses and deaths caused by the contamination. Slow reaction time by a company concerned about profits tragically caused wrongful deathsand needless injuries.
Investing in Safety
As has been highlighted by the Act’s opponents, a safer food supply may mean a more expensive food supply. But, simply put, lives are at stake. Improving the conditions in which our food is produced, manufactured, packaged, transported and stored will certainly impact the health of the nation for years to come. With that long-term perspective, investing in keeping America safe and healthy is worth it.