A TOUGH CASE TO CRACK: With many companies still keeping tabs on their supply chain via paper documents--if they are tracking it at all--tracing foodborne illnesses has been a slow and labor-intensive process in the U.S. If signed into law, the new Senate bill would mandate more thorough food tracking. Image: iStockphoto
Where did your most recent meal come from? Whether or not it was the supermarket, a nice restaurant or nearby drive-through, its contents probably came from not just one U.S. locality but a smattering of states—and countries. Just which ones, though, neither you nor the people who sold, packaged or processed it are likely to know for sure.
If The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act recently passed by the Senate becomes law, companies and consumers would have a much better chance of tracing food back to its farm and factory origins. Such data are crucial in this age of ever more connected food supplies for helping health officials discern the source of major foodborne illness outbreaks, like the salmonella-tainted eggs that sickened more than 2,000 people this summer.
The legislation would also provide the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the authority to mandate food recalls, access industry records if there is reason to believe their products are adulterated, and enter foreign facilities that sell food to the U.S., among other basic authorities that the agency currently lacks.
"The whole framework for food safety law will change from this bill: from being reactive to turn[ing] it around and make it preventive, and avoid contamination before it gets onto grocery shelves," says Erik Olson, director of the Food and Consumer Product Safety Programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "That's a major change," he notes. Currently, "we basically have a century of reactive regulatory approach where you don't intervene until contamination is discovered."
The 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act provided the FDA with the responsibility of ensuring food safety. Various amendments and additions have passed since then, but many experts see the bulk of the current legal framework as being far out of step with the contemporary food system. In the 1930s lawmakers "just did not envision the current consolidation and global spread of the industry that we have now," Olson points out.
The bill, currently stalled due to a procedural error about approving new fees, now must be passed by the House before it can be given to President Obama to be signed into law. Neither the FDA nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would comment on the bill before it is ratified, but in a prepared statement Obama said, "I urge the House—which has previously passed legislation demonstrating its strong commitment to making our food supply safer—to act quickly on this critical bill."
Many experts expect the act to be pushed through with minimal changes before the end of the year. "There is very strong commitment I know from both the House and the Senate this session to get this done," Olson said.
The law would step up preventive measures such as inspecting high-risk food facilities every three years (rather than every 10 years) and establishing safe-handling standards for produce. It would also provide protection for industry whistle-blowers, because currently "there's none, stunningly," Olson says.
The 240-page bill might only explicitly mention the word "science" 11 times but, says David Plunkett, senior council for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "the FDA thinks of itself as a white-coat agency." Also in charge of approving drugs and medical devices, it has a long history of relying on research—although it did not always have the means to do so when it came to food safety, he notes.