The Senate should act on a sensible food-protection bill

Thursday, March 11, 2010

THANKS TO federal regulations that took effect in September, a new salmonella contamination attributed to a flavor enhancer was caught and a recall begun. But inspection documents released by the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday showed that a Las Vegas company continued to distribute the ingredient even after samples came back tainted. Unfortunately, legislation that would have prevented contamination at the source and would further secure the nation's food supply languishes in the Senate.

We're refocused on food safety because salmonella was found in the hydrolyzed vegetable protein sold by Basic Food Flavors. The ingredient is used in a slew of products, from soups and salad dressings to chips and dips. As of Monday, 101 products containing HVP have been recalled. But because it is used so widely, more recalls are expected, which could make this one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

No deaths or illnesses have been reported in this salmonella incident for perhaps two reasons. First, the ingredient is cooked during processing or by customers at home, thus killing whatever salmonella may be lurking within. Second, a customer of Basic Food Flavors reported the contamination to the FDA under a new law that required the customer to do so. This allowed the agency to inspect the Las Vegas facility last month.

So the system, such as it is, worked. But it could work better. The Food Safety Enhancement Act would require companies to develop and implement written food safety plans. They would include developing procedures for conducting hazard analysis, instituting preventive controls and taking corrective action, including recalls. These records would be accessible to the government in an emergency. The FDA would get the power to require product recalls. And the secretary of health and human services would be required to create a food-tracing system, which would make it easier to find sources of contamination.

All these common-sense measures passed the House in July. The bill has been sitting in the Senate since. We know that there is other legislation waiting, but the Senate really needs to move on this bill.

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