Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ensuring new food-safety legislation is effective

The laws governing the food-safety functions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not been substantially updated in more than 70 years, but congressional lawmakers will hopefully soon change that fact.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote soon on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), a bill that would give the agency the powers to help prevent foodborne illness before people get sick instead of just react to outbreaks after they happen. The bipartisan legislation would provide FDA with mandatory recall authority, improve federal inspections of food-manufacturing facilities and require food processors to identify potential risks.

But a proposal by a member of the Senate would greatly undermine the intended goal of the legislation: improving the safety of the nation’s food supply.

Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) is poised to offer two amendments to S. 510 with broad exemptions that S.T.O.P.-Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.) believes would severely hamper the ability of the bill that to protect public health.

The first of these ill-advised proposed amendments would exempt any farm – no matter the size – from safety standards when it sells its produce to a wide range of customers including hotels, restaurants, or institutions. These institutions could include schools and nursing homes, both of which provide food to populations particularly at risk from serious complications and death from foodborne illness – children and the elderly.

Moreover, U.S. trade agreements require that any exemptions be granted to both domestic and foreign growers, further limiting FDA’s oversight of potential dangers to the food supply from foreign products being served at these institutions.

S.T.O.P. and others in the Make Our Food Safe coalition want to make sure that the local, sustainable and organic communities are not unduly burdened by S. 510. However, dangerous pathogens do not discriminate among growers by the size of their farms or facilities or who they sell to. We believe the best approach to achieve fair and protective standards is to provide these growers with technical assistance and training to help them comply with the law, not provide them with exemptions that put any potential consumers of their products at risk..

The second of Sen. Tester’s proposals would exempt certain food processing facilities from safety requirements in S. 510 based on the adjusted gross income from the facility. This language would create a large loophole that limits the legislation’s reach and, like the proposed produce safety exemption, would exempt not only many domestic facilities but also foreign companies as well from these measures that are intended to protect public health.

We share Sen. Tester’s concerns for small and local processors. However, we believe S. 510 has already addressed these concerns. In order to make safe food a reality for American consumers, we need a modern food-safety system that is comprehensive and encompasses all facilities, regardless of size.

S.T.O.P. has supported thousands of foodborne illness victims in the past 17 years. Each new outbreak — from E. coli in spinach, lettuce and cookie dough to Salmonella in peanut butter, spices and Veggie Booty snack treats — has brought us new faces and tragic stories.  We believe that S.510 could help save more people from becoming future victims and want to ensure that all food products are safe. Rather than exempting facilities from regulation we need to be exempting pathogens from the food supply- period.

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