Food safety comeback

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" wasn't the only landmark legislation to rise like a phoenix to passage during the lame-duck session. The long-stalled Food Safety Modernization Act finally received congressional approval on Tuesday. Once the bill is signed into law by President Obama, the Food and Drug Administration will better be able to head off outbreaks of food-borne illness outbreaks.

The House passed the bill last year. But the Senate wasn't able to move on it until a filibuster threat was broken late last month. The first changes in food-safety laws in 72 years seemed assured. But then a glitch in the bill-writing process forced the measure back to the House. With time running short in the lame-duck session, the food-safety bill was given up for dead. But Congress roused itself to action once more.

Under the legislation, companies will be required to develop and implement written food safety plans that will be subject to inspection by the FDA. The secretary of health and human services will be required to establish a system to track and trace the origins of fruits, vegetables and processed foods to make it easier for the government to pinpoint sources of contamination. Instead of relying on voluntary actions of companies, the FDA will have the authority to order product recalls.

There's a long list of foods that have sickened or killed consumers over the past four years, including tomatoes, peppers, spinach and cookie dough, contaminated with salmonella or E. coli. Each episode resulted in nationwide recalls and demands for action to update the nation's antiquated food-safety system. The 2009 outbreak of salmonella in peanuts demonstrated once again the limitations on the FDA's powers to protect the public. You might recall that the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America allegedly shopped around for good test results for its products and then knowingly shipped out tainted goods to market. This year's salmonella outbreak in eggs, which are governed by separate rules that were overhauled after more than 1,200 people were sickened in 22 states, served as a reminder of the broader work that was left undone.

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