Food safety law: Six ways it will make food safer

With the stroke of a pen, President Obama on Tuesday inaugurated the biggest reform in food safety in years. The Food Safety Modernization Act contains changes in rules and procedures that only a bureaucrat could love. Some Republicans threaten to prevent funding its reforms. Still, the law has unusually broad support in Congress, the food industry, and consumer groups. Here are its Top 6 reforms, which will make your food safer:

6.Mandatory recalls

In this Aug. 19, 2010, photo, a sign warns customers of the recall of certain lots of eggs that had been previously sold at a supermarket in Los Angeles. When the Food and Drug Administration traced back the suspect eggs to two Iowa farms, it only had the legal power to request that the companies issue a recall. Now, the FDA can order a recall, thanks to its new authority under the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011. (Reed Saxon/AP/File)

Until now, the Food and Drug Administration could only recommend that a company initiate a recall. The new food-safety law gives it the power to order one. The FDA must still first give the company the opportunity to take action voluntary. Only if the company doesn't take action can the agency issue its order. "Mandatory recall is very important" in terms of protecting consumers, says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center For Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "But the trigger is when the companies fail to comply."

Focus on biggest risks

Distributors and receivers unload produce early in the morning before customers arrive at the Chelsea Wholesale Market in Chelsea, Mass., on Oct. 1, 2010. The new food-safety law requires the FDA to reevaluate food hazards every other year. (Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

Every two years, the FDA will reevaluate data and studies to determine the most important food contaminants, so it can give industry guidance about what to watch out for. The idea is to foster a risk-based approached at the agency – to focus on the biggest threats rather than current procedures. Reformers for years have been pushing the FDA to adopt a risk-based approach to regulating.

Mandatory inspections

Jose Cortez, field inspector for Primus Labs, gathers samples of iceberg lettuce leafs for safety testing from a field in Salinas, Calif., on Oct. 4, 2010. Under a marketing agreement, California and Arizona produce companies have agreed to rigorous inspections to maintain the quality of their goods. Now, federal inspectors will be required to visit high-risk food facilities at least once every three years. (Tony Avelar /The Christian Science Monitor/File)

In keeping with the legislation's risk-based focus, the Secretary of HHS is required to determine which food facilities are high risk and then have those facilities inspected at least once every three years. Food-safety advocates had pushed for much more frequent inspections, but without success.

Access to records

Tom Nunes III, vice president of operations at Nunes Company, examines a food safety log that is kept for every field that the company harvests in Salinas, Calif., in this 2010 file photo. The new food-safety law gives the FDA clear authority to view company records when it suspects there's a problem with its food. (Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

Until now, FDA inspectors didn't have clear authority to demand access to a food company's records. The new law "allows them to have more of an early warning when in the plant," Ms. Smith DeWaal says. Records can alert them to "things that they might not be able to see when they're in the plant."

More control over imports

Boxes of fresh lettuce are loaded up in Salamanca, Mexico, Oct. 5, 2010, to be sent to the US. The new food-safety bill gives the FDA more authority to ensure that food imports meet US standards. (Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

Until the new law, FDA inspectors could inspect food imports at the border and work voluntarily with foreign governments and food companies to bring their standards up to US levels. Now, the agency will also be able to require importers to verify that their foreign suppliers are living up to those standards. "FDA for the first time will have real authority over imported food," says Bill Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner.

Preventive controls

A quality assurance manager tests a lot of oysters for a variety of pathogens at Legal Sea Food's Quality Control Center in Boston on Sept. 30. In the 1990s, the restaurant chain worked with the federal government to create a preventive-control program for the seafood industry. Now, almost every food company under the FDA's jurisdiction will have to come up with similar measures to keep contamination from happening in the first place. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

The biggest change in the legislation is the requirement that food companies take preventive steps to avoid food comtamination. They will now have to identify the critical points where the food they're handling could become contaminated and then implement procedures to prevent that contamination. Already implemented by other countries, as well as by some food companies, these preventive steps in the United States should make it easier for companies and employees to use tools and procedures to keep America's food safe. "It shifts the paradigm," says Mr. Hubbard, the former FDA associate commissioner. FDA in the past has played cop, tracking down trouble when it arises. The law creates "a new system in which government and food processors work together to keep contamination from ever occurring in the first place."