New food safety measures were signed into law recently, granting the FDA sweeping powers to act to prevent food poisoning outbreaks.
President Barack Obama signed the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act into law on December 22. The new law is considered the biggest change in food safety oversight in 70 years and will allow the FDA to force companies to issue recalls when they suspect food may be contaminated, and will greatly increase the agency’s ability to perform inspections on both foreign and domestic manufacturing facilities.
The bill is expected to cost about $1.4 billion over the next four years. Much of that will be spent on hiring about 2,000 new FDA inspectors. By comparison, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that foodborne illnesses cost the country $152 billion annually.
Provisions in the bill include a schedule to inspect 50,000 foreign and domestic food production facilities by 2015 by either the FDA or state, federal or local agencies acting on the FDA’s behalf. In the first year alone, the FDA would inspect 600 foreign facilities, an area where the agency has performed poorly in the past. That number will double each year for five years.
Another major provision gives the FDA the power to order direct recalls of food suspected of being contaminated, greatly reducing the current bar federal regulators have to meet to require a recall. Currently, the FDA relies mostly on food manufacturers to voluntarily recall contaminated food from shelves.
There are approximately 76 million foodborne illnesses each year in the United States, according to a report released in June, “Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration,” which was requested by Congress. Those illnesses cause more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually.
For the FDA to properly regulate an estimated 80% of the nation’s food supply, the agency’s food safety departments need to be restructured to fit a risk-based approach that coordinates data and expertise to quickly find the weak links in the food production and distribution chains where contamination and other problems are most likely to occur, analysts said in the report. Then the agency would be able to quickly and efficiently target the problem areas with the necessary resources and increase its chances of catching dangerous, and sometimes deadly, food outbreaks before they occur.
The bill was propelled to the forefront of the Senate’s agenda following a national egg recall that federal investigators estimate sickened about 1,500 people with salmonella. One of the egg farms implicated in the outbreak had a long history of FDA violations.