Food Safety: Sure There’s a Bill but Will It Be Enforced?
Among the gloomy headlines of 2010, foodborne illnesses ranked high.
In the midst of E. coli-tainted lettuce in April, bug-infested baby
formula in September, and celery that killed four people in October,
the biggest story was the more than half a billion Salmonella-infected
eggs that came from two factory farms in Iowa and sickened 2,000
across the country. But 2010 was not an anomaly. According to the CDC,
foodborne diseases sicken about 48 million Americans each year – one
in six of us. About 3,000 people die from the diseases each year, and
128,000 are hospitalized.
So when President Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act
into law on his first day back from his holiday vacation, many across
the country let out a collective sigh of relief. Long overdue, this
legislation is the first major overhaul of the Food and Drug
Administration’s food safety responsibilities since 1938 and is a
first step towards modernizing FDA’s food safety program. The law
covers foods regulated by the FDA, including produce, processed foods
and shelled eggs but does not cover meat, poultry, or processed egg
products that are regulated by the USDA.
Two provisions of the new law take effect immediately: mandatory
recall authority for the FDA when a food manufacturer refuses to
initiate a product recall voluntarily, and enhanced authority for FDA
inspectors to review a company’s food safety records if they suspect
that the firm is putting adulterated product into commerce. It also
strengthens the FDA’s ability to oversee imported food.
For those of us who have been working on this legislation for more
than two years, it was a real roller coaster ride. This bill came back
from the dead more times than I would like to count. It is certainly
not as strong as we had hoped, but considering the hurdles, it is a
step in the right direction. It survived massive online campaigns
funded by the economic interests opposing it falsely claiming the
legislation would outlaw backyard gardens and farmers markets,
partisan battles over everything except food safety, and finally a
procedural snafu that forced both the House and the Senate to pass the
bill multiple times.
That the legislation survived is due to the hard work of many
organizations and tens of thousands of concerned citizens who wrote
letters to their legislators and editors, signed petitions and spoke
out at public forums. And a spectrum of groups with diverse interests
ranging from consumer advocates like Food & Water Watch to a variety
of small farm and sustainable agriculture groups rolled up their
sleeves to make the bill stronger — in direct opposition to the
powerful industrialized food industry.
But the struggle for a better food safety program at FDA is far from
over. In fact, in many ways it has just begun. It will take several
years to put the law into effect and Congress will have to fund the
agency over the next five years to give the FDA the resources it needs
to implement and enforce the law.
There was a lot of controversy and discussion about the impact this
law will have on small farms and small food processors. Food & Water
Watch and many other groups advocated for a provision in the bill to
protect small processors and farmers from regulations that would be
burdensome for them. Thankfully, these provisions made it into law,
but the produce industry is fighting hard to undo the protections
granted to small farmers and Republicans have vowed to block funding
to the FDA to implement the rules and hire new inspectors.
Now more than ever, we need the public to be engaged in what’s
happening in Congress and speak up on keeping our food supply safe.
Although bickering in Congress will make the implementation of the
food safety law difficult, and the FDA may not always get the details
right on the first try, we need to keep working to hold our government
accountable to us instead of the mega-corporations have created a food
system that quite literally makes us sick.
The most important thing people who care about safe food should do is
pay attention to what happens next. Keep the pressure on your
legislators to make sure that FDA inspects large food processors more
often and implements the new law properly and stay informed by signing
up for alerts from Food and Water Watch or other organizations that
support a safe, healthy food system.
This is a guest post from Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. Click here for more information.
Wenonah Hauter is the Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on energy, food, water and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans. From 1997 to 2005 she served as Director of Public Citizen‚ Energy and Environment Program, which focused on water, food, and energy policy.
By Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch