Europe's E. coli outbreak: Does new food safety law prevent that in US?
A new US food safety regimen became law in January. It expands government regulation of growers, but it's not clear Congress will allot enough funds to implement and enforce the law.
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In recent years, salmonella outbreaks in the US were linked to cantaloupe, alfalfa sprouts, and jalapeño peppers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. In 2006, 199 people were sickened and at least three died after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli.Skip to next paragraph
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The FDA released a detailed farm safety manual in 1998. But because the agency lacked regulatory powers, the safety measures were simply recommendations, not requirements. Many retailers – from Wal-Mart to local farmers markets – filled this regulatory void by requiring the growers they buy from to submit to third-party safety audits.
Some food safety advocates say that system – which will remain in place until the FDA’s new regulations take effect in the coming years – isn’t enough.
“From a consumer perspective, the protections are shoddy,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. “In some stores you may have a very strong system of protections, but in others there may be no protections.”
While the new law grants the FDA power to regulate produce farmers, it doesn’t require the agency to inspect farms to ensure compliance with the new rules.
Not that it necessarily could: There are about 1,000 FDA inspection agents to cover more than 2 million American farms, according to FDA spokesman Doug Karas.
“A lot of things will depend on state and local cooperation,” says Mr. Karas. “We’re going to try to build an integrated national food safety system.”
Karas adds that besides farm and food facility inspections, the FDA collects food samples, monitors recalls, and audits safety records.
Another possible gap in the new food safety law is an exemption for farmers who sell most of their goods locally and earn less than $500,000 in annual sales. According to a 2010 report by the USDA, nearly 30 percent of all US agricultural output comes from family farms that earn less than $500,000 annually.
“It’s a fairly big chunk,” says Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland. “That’s going to put a wrinkle into what the FDA is going to do.”
Most troubling to many food safety advocates is the possibility the FDA won’t have enough resources to carry out its new mandate.
Mr. Obama called for spending $955 million on the FDA’s food safety program during the next fiscal year. But the Republican-chaired House subcommittee that monitors the FDA has proposed reducing that amount to $750 million. That would represent a decrease of $87 million from the agency’s current food safety funding, which does not include implementation of the new law.
An FDA document dated May 23, 2011, was recently leaked to the press. The document says that, without adequate funding, the FDA will be unable to develop preventive measures for small growers or train “FDA, state and local food safety field staff to ensure proper, practical implementation of new standards.”
The document concludes: “2012 is a crucial year for [Food Safety Modernization Act] implementation. Lack of funding at this stage will stall essential foundation-laying efforts that are key to long-term success.”
Dr. Buchanan agrees that the agency needs full funding to carry out the new law.
Otherwise, Buchanan says, “It will raise consumers’ expectations – but it won’t be able to deliver.”
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