What’s Food Safety Really About?

Back in 2011, President Obama signed the long-awaited–and much-needed–Food Safety Modernization Act into law. The act updated America’s food safety system for the first time since the Great Depression and “represents a sea change for food safety in America, bringing a new focus on prevention,” noted Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of food and drugs at the Food and Drug Administration.

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Now the FDA has the authority to enforce food safety measures domestically and internationally, including mandating food recalls (before, recalls were voluntary) and blocking food imported from countries or producers who refuse FDA inspections. As Hamburg notes, half of our fresh fruit, 20% of of our vegetables and 80% of our seafood is imported. However, lack of funding has made implementing measures in the act slow at best.

An avalanche of high-profile food recalls in 2010 may have encouraged lawmakers to pass the act. From the nationwide recall that reclaimed more than a half-billion eggs through a recall of potentially tainted baked goods sold at Whole Foods, 2010 may go down as the year of the food recall. As Kurt noted in his commentary about the egg recall, large-scale industrially cultivated food that’s distributed nationwide can create nationwide food-safety problems.

The real fight is just beginning, says Marion Nestle, author of Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press), because Republican lawmakers have repeatedly balked at appropriating the estimated $1.4 billion needed to implement the law’s measures. Without the money, the law won’t have teeth. That’s bad news for the 1 in 6 Americans who are sickened by food-borne illnesses every year (not to mention the 3,000 killed by tainted food), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the meantime, Bill Marler, an attorney who has devoted his career to litigating foodborne illness cases (starting with the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993), predicts that despite the new law “2011 may well look like many of the years before to me – more outbreaks, more suffering and more lawsuits.”

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