Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Food for Thought


I don't plan on talking politics in my blog (I'll leave that to the other DC student blogs, thanks) but earlier today, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, making it law.

Originally introduced in the Senate as S. 510 in March 2009, it was finally passed by the Senate in November 2010.  Amendments were presented and this act emerged in the House as H.R. 2751. People didn't expect it to go anywhere from there with the turnover of the House to Republicans and this act being put on the back burner.  Surprisingly, H.R. 2751 was passed in the House in June of 2009 and then passed in the Senate on December 19, 2010 (73 for, 25 against) - right before the turnover.

This legislation affects the FDA only, which regulates all foods except for meat and poultry, which is regulated by the Department of Agriculture.  This marks the first time that food regulation in the US has enjoyed major change since 1938.  It also marks the first time that the US has set food safety standards for imported foods.

Major changes:

  • Create strategies and tests to prevent contamination, old legislation forced government to trace the source of outbreak to origin
  • FDA can now recall food, previously the FDA needed to wait for food companies to voluntarily recall their diseased products
  • FDA has access to internal records
  • Importers need to verify that their products from other countries meet US safety standards
  • Fees may be imposed on companies that require recalls or multiple inspections
  • FDA can suspend a food production facility
  • Grocery stores will be required to actively alert their customers of recalls
It's important to note that this bill exempts small farmers and those who sell directly to farmer's markets, which was another source of contention from agribusiness.


This bill, though it had bipartisan support, was in limbo for a while due to some legal technicalities (including the requirement that it originate in the House rather than the Senate).  Additionally, agribusiness argued against it, claiming that it would make food too expensive.  Super conservatives think this is major government overreach, with Glenn Beck claiming that it's a ruse to convert consumers to vegetarianism (fact checking, Mr. Beck: meat isn't even under the jurisdiction of the FDA).

According to government statistics, food illnesses affect 1 in 4 Americans yearly and kill 5000 each year.  For all Food, Inc. viewers, you remember the story of Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2 year old son died from e. coli poisoning after eating a hamburger.  It seems like almost every week there's a recall - whether its spinach, hamburger meat, or tomatoes, e. coli or salmonella.

But even with the frequency of these recalls, I'm still amazed that the government couldn't force a food production facility to shut down or that they couldn't even force a recall until today (or, I guess more accurately, whenever this law goes into action).

So while I see that this is definitely increasing government oversight, is that such a bad thing?  Most of us wouldn't ever be able to tell if our food was diseased (nor could we afford it!) and even when I ate meat, it's not like I ever ever used a food thermometer.  Overall, I think that this is a great step forward for food safety.

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