In May of this year, when 19 people across several states were seriously sickened after eating romaine lettuce that had been contaminated with E. coli bacteria, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not issue a recall of the contaminated produce. Instead, the FDA waited for the company that packaged the lettuce, Freshway Foods, to issue a voluntary recall.
When 71 people in Illinois became ill with salmonella poisoning last month after eating fresh produce served at Subway restaurants, the FDA did not force Subway to recall the fruits and vegetables from its Illinois stores. Instead, federal officials waited for Subway to throw out and replace all the produce in its Illinois restaurants voluntarily.
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Why didn’t the FDA force recalls in these serious cases of obvious food contamination? For one good reason: it can’t. The FDA, which is supposed to oversee the safety of all fresh produce sold in the U.S., does not have the legal authority to command food recalls. Congress has never granted it that power.
The FDA can issue food labeling requirements, and regulations requiring food contaminants to be kept below a certain level. The FDA can inspect food facilities for safety violations and publicize those violations if it finds them. But if a company breaks the own FDA’s rules on contaminated food, the FDA cannot legally force that company to recall the product. The FDA may only suggest that the corporation responsible for the contamination issue a recall.
But that could soon change. The Food Safety Modernization Act, already passed by the House, and currently awaiting a vote by the Senate, would give the FDA authority to mandate an emergency food recall in the event of a food poisoning outbreak that puts public health at risk.
The legislation would also require food processing and packaging plants and food retailers to maintain a trail of clear written records indicating where food comes from, to make it easier for the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control to quickly track outbreaks to their original source. The bill would increase the frequency of FDA inspections of commercial food handling facilities, give the Health and Human Services Secretary the authority to focus extra regulatory scruitiny on foods considered to be at high risk for contamination, and require better safety testing of foods imported from other countries.
When the Food Safety Modernization Act was still in debate on the House floor, some sustainable food advocacy groups, which generally support the idea of better food labeling and food tracking systems, initially expressed some concern that the new paperwork and fees the legislation would impose on food processors and producers, might impose an unfair burden on small family farms and certified organic farmers — who already must fill out similar government paperwork in order to have their products certified organic by the USDA.
Meanwhile unsubstantiated rumors about the food safety bill raced around the internet, with chain emails breathlessly warning that the government would soon outlaw organic farming, require farmers to use genetically modified seeds, and require even home gardeners to register their produce with the FDA (note: none of these rumors were true).
In reality, the House version of the bill specifically exempts home gardens and hobby farms from regulation, and also exempts small for-profit farms that sell fresh produce directly to consumers from the strictest paperwork and tracking requirements. And the Senate version of the bill eliminates the one-size-fits-all fee structure that had many smaller farmers concerned about the House bill, giving the FDA more discretion to assess or waive inspection and paperwork fees based on the size and nature of a facility.
What’s more, in response to concerns about possible problems for small scale organic farmers, Representative John Dingell, who cosponsored the House version of the bill, has suggested that the FDA work directly with the National Organic Program during the bill’s implementation to allay those concerns, saying: “With respect to the National Organic Program, it is my expectation that FDA will work very closely with the NOP as it implements this bill to ensure there are no such conflicts. There is direction within the bill for the FDA to consider small farms, organic practices and conservation methods, and I trust that this will be followed. The intention of this bill is not to harm farming practices that have existed for centuries with minimal documented health risk.”
Though the legislation may not be a perfect solution to America’s food safety problems, it does represent a major step toward addressing the more serious flaws that currently plague our industrialized food system. The Food Safety Modernization Act will undoubtedly vastly improve the government’s ability to respond to rapidly to disease outbreaks caused by dangerous food contaminants, force corporate food producers to take greater responsibility for the safety of their products, and increase consumers’ access to accurate information about where their food comes from.
So if you prefer your salads and sandwiches without salmonella and E. coli, ask the Senate to act on the Food Safety Modernization Act now, before the FDA is forced once again to respond to a widespread food poisoning outbreak with a polite request for a voluntary recall.
Photo courtesy U.S. CDC. Public domain.