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Senate Votes on the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act Tonight

November 29, 2010

Tonight, the Senate will vote on the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act tonight, a landmark bill that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to test for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food for the first time. Currently, the FDA cannot force a manufacturer to recall its products, but can only ask food producers to voluntarily recall their products. The bill is a huge and important step forward for food safety, giving the FDA similar powers over food products as it already has over pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Each year, there are an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness, causing approximately 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. While the relative rates of many foodborne illnesses have gone down since the late 1990s, new pathogens proliferate, whether in the form of new strains of bacteria or chemical contaminants. Our increasing reliance on processed and convenience foods, which now account for over half of food spending, increases the likelihood that contamination in foods will spread: The processing involved in producing these foods can permit the spread of one contaminated ingredient into several finished products, spreading illness to more households. (The processing necessary to create peanut butter and bagged salads may explain why salmonella outbreaks last year spread so far so fast.)

While the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act is an important first step, it does not go far enough to protect us against contaminated products. Importantly, the Act does not cover the USDA, which shares responsibility for regulating our food supply. At the federal level, the FDA is responsible for all human foods introduced into interstate commerce with the exception of meat, poultry, and some egg products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for the safety of products that contain 2% or more cooked meat and poultry or 3% or more raw meat and poultry–including those processed foods, such as frozen dinners, which may easily spread contamination. Given the recent public attention to the USDA’s conflicts of interest in its food policy, federal legislation is necessary to empower the USDA to more effectively regulate food and insulate it from further agency capture or shift its regulatory responsibilities to the FDA.
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