Two years after legislation was enacted to improve food safety, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday released rules the agency is lauding as the most significant since 1938. With this step, the agency puts the regulatory emphasis on preventing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses rather than acting only after the damage is done.
The change arrives not a moment too soon for the safety of the nation’s food supply and public health. In 2011, a listeria contamination in cantaloupe killed 29 people in 28 states. The contamination eventually was traced to the wash water in which the cantaloupes were bathed after harvest. Unfortunately, listeria and cantaloupes have not been the only sources of concern in recent years. Salmonella, e.coli and other microbial contaminations have occurred periodically, jeopardizing health and leading to recalls of all kinds of processed and raw foods, including peanut butter, lettuce, eggs and poultry and meat products. All of this comes at a cost to consumer confidence and the financial health of food producers.
Under the new rules, food manufacturers, processors, packagers and warehouses are required to identify hazards that are “reasonably likely to occur in their operations” and to put in place written safety plans, verifying the effectiveness of the preventive controls, monitoring and keeping safety records. The projection is that the rules, which apply to both domestic and foreign facilities in the U.S. food-supply chain, will prevent about 1 million contaminated-food illnesses a year, saving roughly $2 billion.
To ensure the safety of fruits and vegetables, the rules target major sources of contamination in growing, harvesting, packaging and storing produce. Farms must implement and keep records of safety controls, particularly regarding the quality of agricultural water, the use of animal-based products (such as manure) and proper control of domestic and wild animals on produce farms.
The FDA estimates that one in six Americans suffer a food-borne illness every year. Consumers and the food industry alike recognize the urgency for clear standards in food safety. The challenge for Congress and the White House is whether they will ensure the FDA has the resources and enough inspectors to enforce the standards.