Prevention underpins new U.S. food-safety law

President Obama is expected to sign the Food Safety Modernization Act into law on Tuesday, putting the United States on a new course of enacting preventative measures at the source of food production and giving its top food agencies new and more powerful enforcement authorities.

During a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday, top U.S. food safety agencies voiced support for the new measures, which they called “historic.”

“The Food Safety Modernization Act is the most significant food safety law of the last 100 years,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The law will give authorities “new tools, new resources and new authority to prevent contaminated food from ending up on shelves” and assure consumers that “when they sit down at the dinner table they won’t end up at the hospital.”

Sebelius added that the United States’ food-safety system has been “mostly reactive” and is thusly no longer effective. About 100 foodborne-illness outbreaks were reported per year in the early 1990s, she said; that number has grown to more than 350.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said that one in six Americans annually contracts a foodborne illness, most of which she says are preventable.

“This law puts necessary and renewed emphasis on prevention, from farm to table,” said Hamburg. “Too often we’ve seen how breakdowns can mean illness or death to consumers. Prevention is a core principle of public health. This new law will integrate food safety and prevention across all commodities.”

The FDA, in partnership with industry, will be responsible for identifying potential hazards using a risk-based approach, for implementing measures to prevent illnesses and for correcting problems when necessary, said Hamburg. In other words, FDA will increase its oversight on production and have mandatory recall authority to “remove contaminated food from the marketplace, swiftly.”

But FDA will also place greater emphasis on inspections, particularly on foreign food facilities. Hamburg, stressing that more than 80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported, said FDA will be able to block food from facilities or entire countries that refuse inspection.

Sebelius said FDA must be assured that foreign suppliers are taking necessary safety precautions so that “sea bass from Chile meets the same safety standards as lobsters from Maine.”

Clearly, health care costs to address foodborne illnesses are driving the need for this new approach to food safety. Erik Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs at the Pew Health Group, put the annual cost at USD 152 billion.

“The costs of not protecting our food supply are even greater,” said Olson, who estimated that 80 percent of the food Americans consume will be covered by the new law. “FDA is going to need the resources to make this landmark law fulfill its potential.”

However, it’s still unclear whether the initiative will be adequately funded. While confirming that all the changes won’t occur overnight, Hamburg said she is “optimistic” that Congress will provide the necessary USD 1.4 billion over the next five years. Hamburg added that sum is not entirely “new” money, but the total cost that will utilize resources already in place.

“We sill need Congress to provide sufficient funding,” said Sebelius, “so we can start building the 21st Century food-safety system that we so desperately need.”

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