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
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.
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
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
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.
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."