Product Liability

Historical food safety bill passes Senate

The U.S. Senate today passed a sweeping overhaul of the country’s food safety system, a move triggered by the steadily growing number of food-borne illness outbreaks occurring throughout the country. If signed into law, the Food Safety Modernization Act will strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s powers to prevent contaminated foods from entering the nation’s food supply.

Consumer advocates, safety experts, and a number of bipartisan legislators pushed for the overhaul, which will affect about 80 percent of the nation’s food supply, including fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, dairy products and processed foods that do not contain meat. Meat supplies fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s oversight and will not be affected by the changes.

Many critics of the FDA assert that the agency is too bogged down by its oversight of the pharmaceutical industry to effectively manage the nation’s food safety system. Both versions of the bill being considered for final passage would give the FDA new powers to recall suspect foods, step up inspections of the food supply and food manufacturing facilities, demand accountability from food companies, and oversee farming.

An increasingly industrialized and globalized food supply also challenges the FDA’s ability to stem the flow of tainted products into the market. Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. food supply is imported and about three-quarters of our seafood supply is imported, yet the FDA inspects just one pound per million of these imports. The new bill would increase FDA inspection of foreign food plants and establish standards for the growing of U.S.-bound fruits and vegetables in other countries.

Large food manufacturers with numerous facilities can also create wide-scale damage to the nation’s food supply. Last year, for example, we reported how the Peanut Corporation of America allowed batches of salmonella-contaminated peanut butter products to be shipped throughout the country, where it was used by schools and hospitals and in the production of other products such as crackers, cookies, and ice cream. The Peanut Corporation’s peanut butter recalls forced many other companies to recall their own products that were made with the contaminated peanut butter.

Likewise, contaminated spinach from one supplier caused the nation’s entire spinach supply to be destroyed, costing several businesses millions of dollars, and a recent recall of contaminated eggs from two suppliers caused all egg producers to suffer because consumers steered clear of all eggs.

“This is an historic moment,” said Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, an advocacy group. “For the first time in over 70 years, the Senate has approved an overhaul of FDA’s food safety law that will help ensure that the food we put on our kitchen tables will be safer.”