Seventy-two years have passed since the last comprehensive overhaul of our nation’s food safety system. On December 19th, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was finally passed by the Senate in a 73 - 25 vote. Final approval from the House came two days later in a 215 - 144 vote and the bill now sits on President Obama’s desk. To much surprise, the lame-duck Congress was productive and bipartisanship proved to exist as the food safety bill was just one of the pieces of legislation passed over the short work period.

The need to revamp our current food safety system has escalated over the past few years as the number of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses continues to climb. Check out a breakdown the Wall Street Journal provides of some of the major outbreaks and the impact each one had on consumers. The supply chains of common foods like peanut butter, cookie dough, spinach, and eggs have been significantly impacted by massive recalls.

This bill is long overdue and was placed on the backburner as the healthcare legislation remained the focal point for the Senate for quite some time. The House passed their version of the food safety bill back in July and was awaiting the Senate to pass their version soon after. The delay was also caused by deep concerns that small farmers had regarding the legislation. In response to these concerns, an amendment to the bill was added and championed by Jon Tester, a Democratic Senator from Montana who is an organic farmer himself. The Wall Street Journal detailed the amendment reporting that it exempts “small farms and food processors with annual sales under $500,000 from the new FDA regulations if they sell their goods directly to consumers or restaurants no more than 275 miles away.”

Critics of the bill do not think it will reap any improvements. Senator Tom Coburn, as Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports, argues that “the Senate legislation ‘doesn’t fix the problem’ with the food safety system and may drive up food prices by $300 million to $400 million as companies pass compliance costs onto consumers.” Part of this argument holds true, but I would rather pay more for food than risk my health.

Russell Libby, the executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association expressed his opinion during a “Food Fight” forum on Grist and makes a solid point. He states that “the public will have to make real decisions about what kind of food system we want.” If you know who your farmer is, all this talk about food safety is most likely not a huge concern for you. However, the majority of Americans “do not know who produces their food, and therefore, a lot of reasons exist for why we would want a strong FDA to act as an intermediary.”

The main objective of this bill is to enable the FDA to prevent contamination instead of react to contamination. This necessary shift will, of course, not be overnight. Many steps will need to take place in order for the FDA to inch their way towards this stance. The bill will give the FDA authority to mandate food recalls and will also provide resources needed to improve tracking of shipments and create a program that effectively traces an outbreak back to its source. More importantly, the FDA will also have the funds to perform inspections more frequently. It has also been granted the ability to set new standards for food manufacturers, which includes requiring all to develop a food-safety plan. The FDA will also oversee imported foods more closely. The New York Times points out that the FDA currently only “inspects less than one pound in a million of imported foods. The legislation gives the agency more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.” One aspect of the bill that did not pass was the consolidation of other agencies that oversee aspects of food safety. The Department of Agriculture will remain a separate entity from the FDA. The bill is expected to cost about $1.4 billion over the next four or five years according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Overall, we need some sort of response to the recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. Improvement is needed and this legislation is a step in the right direction. Our nation’s food system needs to regain consumer trust and remain among the top food systems in the world. Let’s hope this bill only strengthens our system and delivers some progress. Here’s to a New Year of less recalls.
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Kathleen Jordan

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