It’s universally understood by food safety experts that the food safety laws in the United States are badly in need of reform. The recent rash of nationwide illness outbreaks and recalls linked to peanut butter, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, ground beef, and other foods demonstrates the urgent need for Congress to address food safety. This reform must include not only increased funding for food safety, but more importantly, updating the underlying food safety laws to address current problems. A top priority is passage of FDA reform legislation that will provide adequate consumer protection. Several reform bills designed to reform the agency have been introduced in Congress. To be effective, any FDA reform legislation must:
• require food processors to establish process controls adequate to prevent contamination;
• require the FDA to establish performance standards to protect public health;
• allocate resources according to risk, yet still require the FDA to perform onsite inspection of all plants;
• provide for strong on-farm food safety standards and include a requirement for the FDA to inspect on the farm;
• provide adequate enforcement powers, including mandatory recall authority and traceback authority;
• limit the role of private third party certification to verification that company process control systems meet U.S. standards and reject certification as a substitute for inspection; and
• establish a system for determining equivalency of foreign food safety systems and foreign food plants before allowing food from those countries or plants into the United States.
It’s most apparent that the FDA’s food safety responsibilities have long been neglected by both the agency itself and its parent, the Department of Health and Human Services. Last fall, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who is from Connecticut, introduced a bill to remove food safety functions from the FDA and create a new Food Safety Agency within HHS. Under the bill, drug and device responsibilities would be carried out by a newly-named Federal Drug Administration. Passage of legislation creating this new agency is said to be a priority for the new Congress.
While inadequate funding of the FDA has been a major problem, it isn’t the only problem. Recent increases in funding of the agency have been important in an effort to begin restoring the agency, but those are only a down-payment on the ultimate resources needed to assure a strong regulatory agency. Securing additional funds for the FDA in an FY 2009 omnibus bill and the FY 2010 budget should be legislative priorities for the Obama Administration. In that regard, President Obama, who has promised to bolster and reorganize the nation’s broken food-safety system, has created a Food Safety Working Group. It will include the Secretaries of Health and Agriculture and will advise the President on which laws and regulations need to be changed. This is being done to foster coordination between federal agencies and to make sure that applicable laws are enforced.
A bipartisan group of powerful lawmakers in Congress has also promised to enact fundamental changes in the nation’s food-protection system. The President has made clear that he not only supports that legislative effort, but has indicated that he also might push to expand it. Currently, a dozen federal agencies share responsibility for ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply, an oversight system that critics and government investigators have for years said needed major revisions. Each year, about 76 million people in the United States are sickened by contaminated food, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and about 5,000 die, public health experts estimate.
Source: Consumer Federation of America and New York Times
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