The FDA proposed new rules today that would require US food distributors to implement additional measures to combat food-borne illness. The guidelines are aimed at improving food handling in both the agriculture and manufacturing sectors after a series of recent disease outbreaks in peanuts, cantaloupe, cheese, and leafy green vegetables that killed scores of Americans.
Food safety organizations welcomed the new rules after a long delay.
"Under the old rules, we've been reacting to food contaminations after they happened," Ami Gadhia of Consumers Union said in a statement. "The goal here is to prevent deadly outbreaks before people get hurt. We're anxious to dive deep into these proposed rules so we can review and comment on the details."
One rule would require growers, manufacturers and distributors to develop formal plans for preventing contamination, including techniques for cleaning equipment and keeping animals out of crops. Mandatory contingency plans for outbreaks would also be required of businesses, to be approved by the government. The rule would apply to both foreign and domestic suppliers, provided their goods are bound for US consumption.
Another rule proposes enforceable safety standardization in the production and harvesting of produce.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 3,000 Americans died last year from food-borne illnesses, with an additional 130,000 hospitalized.
In an effort to stave off industry protests Food and Drug Administration officials stressed the rules would be implemented on a risk-based scale, with higher emphasis placed on foods intended to be eaten raw. For example, fresh tomatoes bound for supermarket produce aisles would be held to much stricter standards than beans intended to be cooked and canned.
The FDA estimates it will take roughly a year for the government to move toward implementing the rules, including a 120-day period for public comment. After adoption the largest agriculture businesses will have two years to comply, and small-scale producers will have extensions well beyond that time frame.
Most American food distributors are already in compliance with many of the regulations set out today, but many are voluntary and the government believes stricter enforcement could have prevented deaths from recent highly publicized outbreaks. For example, during the 2011 listeria outbreak in cantaloupes federal investigators found dirty processing equipment and standing pools of old water on the floor of the Colorado farm that produced them. The contaminated produce was linked to 33 deaths.
But these measures are part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping series of regulatory changes to the industry that have been tied up in the Obama administration for well over a year. As the first major overhaul of the FDA in decades, President Obama signed the legislation into law with modest Republican support from Congress two years ago to the day, with a one-year deadline to see its first policies put into practice.
Speculation of political motivations at work cropped up during the delays, fueled after the rules were hung-up at the Office of Management and Budget in the review process. Some industry watchers suggest the administration may have sought to deny Republicans an additional talking point during an election year by tabling new proposals.
Pew Research reports there have been 15 major outbreaks regarding FDA-related products since the FSMA was signed into law, resulting in 40 deaths.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.