The second decade of the 21st century is here. Cars can speak to drivers and direct them where to go. Masses of readers have ditched dog-eared paperbacks for electronic surrogates that can hold hundreds of volumes yet fit comfortably in their hands. With all of this, isn’t it reasonable to expect that consumers be able to walk into supermarkets and come out with food they know is safe?
According to U.S. government estimates, eating contaminated food causes hundreds of thousands of Americans to be hospitalized and thousands to die each year. Foodborne illness also takes a financial toll on victims, their families, and society, costing hundreds of billions of dollars annually, according to one expert analysis. The fear—and consequences—of foodborne illness are real, and consumers want better assurance that it will not strike them or their loved ones. Nationwide polling has made this clear. According to a bipartisan poll commissioned by the Pew Health Group over the summer, 89% of voters support new food-safety legislation—an endorsement that crosses gender, age, economic, and partisan lines.
As the recent outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to contaminated spinach, peanut butter products, and cookie dough underscore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently possess the authority, funding, and capacity to adequately ensure the safety of food consumers purchase, whether it be imported items or those produced in the U.S. As these outbreaks also demonstrated, it is not only victims and their families who suffer from contamination in the food supply; recalls and interrupted production that result from outbreaks cost the food industry millions of dollars—a loss that is compounded by consumer fears about purchasing stigmatized foods.
The Senate food-safety reform bill, S. 510, would shift the FDA’s focus from responding to outbreaks as they occur to creating a food-safety system focused on preventing foodborne illness. Among other measures, the bill increases inspection rates for high-risk food facilities, requires facilities to develop preventive control programs to reduce the risk of contamination, increases FDA authority to mandate recalls of tainted products, and creates stricter requirements around imports.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions unanimously passed this bipartisan piece of legislation in November 2009. Now, as soon as possible, the Senate needs to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, in order to make food-safety reform a reality. In July, the House overwhelmingly passed H.R. 2749, its version of the FDA food-safety reform, which does even more to strengthen the food-safety system than does the Senate bill.
Consumers want and need a better food-safety system. The food industry wants and needs the same thing—an alignment of interests that rarely occurs. Congress should vote on, and pass, FDA reform legislation as soon as possible, and begin the New Year—and new decade—with the promise of safer food.
Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
National Consumers League