This week the House of Representatives passed legislation representing what would be the largest overhaul of the food safety system in American history. The measure passed the House 283 to 142 with nearly all Democrats and about half of Republicans voting in favor. The Senate is expected to review the bill in the fall after its recess.
Food safety has been a top priority for the U.S. government in modern times, but a slew of recent salmonella and E. Coli outbreaks threw open the curtains on a food safety system that has become dangerously inadequate and lax across the board, from regulation to inspection to enforcement.
John Dingell (D-MI), who sponsored the bill, said it would “fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply.”
The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates 80 percent of the nation’s food supply, more power to enforce food safety regulations. For instance, the FDA will be able to order recalls of contaminated food products. Currently, the agency only has the power to ask companies to recall contaminated products.
The bill would also increase the agency’s responsibilities by requiring it to inspect high-risk food processing plants every 6 to 12 months. Lower-risk plants would be inspected once every three years, while food storage warehouses would be inspected once every five years.
Under the current system, it was possible for some plants to run unlicensed and uninspected for years. For example, the peanut processing plant in Plainview Texas, which was part of the conglomerate that caused a massive salmonella outbreak last winter, didn’t have a license to operate and was never inspected by state or federal authorities. The outbreak was one of many in the last 3 years, drawing the ire of many legislators and compelling the Obama administration to vow a reform the federal food safety system.
Other provisions in the bill call for stricter and more thorough inspections of imported food, rules that will make the records of food processing companies more transparent to federal authorities, and a requirement that food companies establish safety plans aimed at slashing the incidences of contamination and food-borne illnesses.
In addition to more frequent and thorough inspections, the bill will require the FDA to develop a better way to quickly identifying the source of an outbreak. Such a plan would involve creating a tracking system for all food products, including ingredients.
The Consumer Federation of America praised the House on its passage of the bill, telling the New York Times that “the FDA has no specific authority right now, or responsibility, to prevent food-borne illness.”
“We hope the day will come when serious illness or death caused by contaminated food will be a thing of the past and we can feed our families without fear that the food carries a dreaded disease,” the federation said.