November 30th, 2010
05:46 PM ET
Let's face it: If it is grown on a field, it will occasionally be tainted. If human hands are involved with processing food, it will occasionally be contaminated. No food safety legislation can change that.
"It's not reasonable to assume we're going to eliminate everything," said Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign at Pew Charitable Trusts. "That is because of any number of things. Produce, for example, grows in dirt and is open to the elements."
"You can have a few birds feeding on animal fecal material that has E. coli," said Mansour Samadpour, president of IEH Laboratories, a company that tests salad greens for E. coli and other pathogens, in a recent interview with CNN. "They land somewhere in the field, they then contaminate a small area."
But that E. coli-tainted lettuce – or salmonella-laden peanut butter – may not be the biggest problem. It is not the pathogens themselves (which have been here longer than humans) that are the issue, but a historic inability to stop them from migrating from the field to our dinner plates.
In the space between farm and table - at processing plants, where food is handled and sorted – is where many experts believe our best chance exists to catch foodborne pathogens. But there has not been a coordinated system, nor any government oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, to make that happen.
"FDA not only has insufficient resources, but it also has some major gaps in its authority," said Eskin.
An unwanted side effect of those gaps: 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths caused by foodborne illness in the U.S. each year.
Tuesday's passage of S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act aims to change that. It gives the FDA more power to prevent outbreaks - a change that was hailed by food safety advocates.
"Everyone who eats will benefit from this historic legislation," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement. "FDA will have new tools to help ensure that America's food supply is safer, causing fewer illnesses and deaths."
"This legislation is by no means perfect," said noted food safety authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser in The New York Times. "But it promises to achieve several important food safety objectives, greatly benefiting consumers without harming small farmers or local food producers"
The FDA, responsible for overseeing 80 percent of the nation's food supply, has historically cited understaffing and a lack of funding as a hindrance to proper inspection of food processors.
"Since 1972, inspections conducted by the FDA declined 81 percent. Since 2003, the number of FDA field staff dropped by 12 percent, and between 2003 and 2006 federal inspections dropped by 47 percent," according to an analysis by the CSPI, an advocacy group dedicated to food safety. And a recent congressional study revealed that the agency inspects less than 1 percent of the U.S. food supply, leaving the food industry to police itself.
"Setting up this system is a huge sea change," said Eskin. "This provides the Food and Drug administration the clear authority to prevent food safety problems rather than just react to them."
Under the new law the FDA would, for the first time, have the authority to develop legally binding produce safety rules. The bill calls for inspections for high-risk food processors and grants FDA more power to stop distribution of potentially harmful products. The onus for food safety would now be on food suppliers who, under the bill will have to put together a plan identifying possible sources of contamination and ways to prevent them.
"We have a pretty big food supply chain here and with that the opportunity for problems increases," said Eskin. "The key here is that more can be done to prevent problems. We haven't been doing enough. The government hasn't had clear authority to prevent problems. We believe this is a significant step forward."
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