In 2006, it was E. coli found on spinach. In 2007, it was contaminated seafood imports and later, contaminated frozen hamburger patties. 2008 saw the largest beef recall in U.S. history, followed by a huge salmonella outbreak that was mistakenly blamed on tomatoes, then possibly cilantro before imported peppers were discovered to be the true culprit.
And, in late 2008 and early 2009, a separate salmonella outbreak traced back to a Georgia peanut processing plant sickened almost 700 people and led to the most complex and extensive food recall in U.S. history, involving almost 4,000 different products.
The overwhelming majority of food consumed in the U.S. is safe. Hundreds of millions of servings of meat, produce, fruits and vegetables are eaten here every day without anyone getting sick. But, clearly, something needs to be done to stop these blockbuster outbreaks, which have been taking their toll not only on individual lives, but also on consumer confidence in the U.S. food supply.
In 2007 and 2008, only 63% of consumers said they believed that foods sold in U.S. supermarkets were safe, vs. 68% in 2004, according to the NPD Group's Food Safety Monitor. That steady erosion is a little less disturbing than the results of a weekly tracking poll sponsored by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, and conducted by the Louisiana State University AgCenter and the University of Minnesota's Food Industry Center. As January's peanut-linked outbreak was winding down, only 22.5% of respondents to that survey said they believed the U.S. food supply was safer than it was a year ago.
Fortunately, federal agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have been taking action this year. The USDA just announced that it will have its inspectors begin regularly testing “bench trim” — beef trimmings from cattle that weren't slaughtered in the same facility where further processing is taking place — for E. coli and other pathogens. The trimmings, which are often a component of ground beef products, have become a primary suspect in cases of E. coli contamination in ground beef.
Similarly, the FDA has released new, voluntary guidelines for growers of tomatoes, melons and greens. The agency says that the guidelines are similar to procedures that many producers are already following, so few growers will need to make major adjustments.
But, more notable is the reaction that many food industry groups have had to the U.S. House of Representatives' passage of H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. Several industry leaders reacted late last month by saying that the bill reflects a new and growing cooperation between the safety efforts of the government and food producers in the U.S., and builds on the many private-sector efforts that were already under way.
“We are pleased that the bill endows the Food and Drug Administration with new powers such as mandatory recall authority, which will improve its ability to safeguard the food supply,” Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., said after the bill passed on July 31. “We support the measure's recognition of fully accredited third-party food safety certification programs and the need to develop traceability initiatives that build on industry efforts already under way. We urge the Senate to approve companion legislation quickly so the industry and government can take the actions required to enhance our nation's food safety system.”
The bill significantly expands the FDA's powers with relation to food safety through amendments to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. If companion legislation successfully passes in the Senate this fall, the agency could ultimately have the power to issue mandatory recalls, quarantine food throughout any geographic area, establish mandatory traceability systems, conduct more frequent production facility inspections and levy new fees on producers to pay for these new safety efforts.
But, groups like the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., believe that legislators have been listening to them. Ultimately, the hope is that mandatory requirements will mirror the voluntary programs the industry has been toiling away at for the past several years, such as the Produce Traceability Initiative, or the agricultural standards established by the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.
“We've also been working hard to carry the industry's perspective to FDA, USDA and [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as well,” Julia Stewart, public relations director for PMA, told SN. “PMA Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker, [Vice President of Government Relations and Public Affairs] Kathy Means and D.C. representative Tom O'Brien have been walking the halls of Congress and the agencies quite a lot over the last year. Last summer's Salmonella saintpaul outbreak illustrated that despite our past efforts, we still have a lot of work to do to educate regulators and legislators about our industry — and that there are lots of opportunities to lend our expertise to help them do their jobs better, if they will just take advantage of them.”
Shortly after the passage of the new Food Safety Enhancement Act, Means herself wrote on her policy blog, fieldtofork.pma.com, that from PMA's standpoint, recent legislation has indicated “clear evidence of the increased collaboration that has taken place between government and industry on both the regulatory and legislative efforts.
“FDA's guidance is built on the strong foundation that industry laid through commodity-specific guidance written over the past five years. And the legislation the House passed is significantly better than earlier versions, because those crafting the bill listened to the real-world practicalities we raised. We've been working within the process to express our members' needs, to explain how the industry works, to find the most efficient ways to achieve our common goal — produce safety.”
For groups that have a vested interest in the bill's outcome, the work is far from done. The Senate will need to introduce companion legislation, which will most likely happen this fall. And, differences between the bills will have to be resolved before President Obama can sign the bill into law.
And, there's an issue with funding. In 2007, the FDA took a lot of criticism when it became widespread knowledge that the agency only has the money and manpower to inspect many domestic food production facilities once every few years, and to inspect only about 1% of the food that the U.S. imports.
This bill would task the agency with increasing inspections of many food production facilities from once every few years to once every six to 12 months. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that these increased inspections will cost $2.2 billion over five years, while the new fees implemented by the bill — $500 per applicable facility — will raise only $1.4 billion during that time. Congress will have to find other ways to raise the additional funds, during an already difficult economic period.
Also, a small but vocal contingent of food activists have argued that the bill will have a chilling effect on the local food movement, forcing small growers to submit to the same schedule of fees, penalties, inspections and oversight as their much larger national and international counterparts. Congress responded by changing the language in some parts of the bill to exempt small growers, although some activists and farmers have continued to argue that the bill will still leave the fate of small operations at the mercy and discretion of the FDA.
But, in general, growers and the trade organizations that represent them seem encouraged by the way this legislation was written. As Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the Washington-based United Fresh Produce Association noted, after seeking input from industry representatives, Congress “ensured that FDA would work with USDA, state departments of agriculture and other agencies in implementing all produce provisions [and] kept a mandate for traceability across all foods, but without prescriptive dictates that could have set back work on our current Produce Traceability Initiative.”
In addition, he praised the bill for ensuring equal treatment of imported and domestic produce in food safety standards, and enhancing the ability of processors to develop tailored Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point safety programs without “one-size-fits-all mandates.”
“While United is supportive of these improvements to H.R. 2749, there are still important issues that we will address with the Senate as it begins its work on food safety legislation later this year,” Stenzel said. “We look forward to continued bipartisan support and industry cooperation to ensure passage of sound, scientific food safety legislation that can benefit all Americans.”