The FDA's Food Contamination Rules Were Disgustingly Out of Date

David Wagner
The FDA's Food Contamination Rules Were Disgustingly Out of Date

After much delay, and much not-so-secret disgust, the Food and Drug Administration came out with rules aimed at curbing food-borne illness Friday. By the agency's own admission, this marks "the first time we've ever had enforceable standards on the farm." That quote comes from the FDA's Deputy Comissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, Michael Taylor, who told Food Safety News's Helena Bottemiller that "it's a big deal that these [rules] are coming out because it's the central framework for prevention." The major new guidelines emerge from the Food Safety Modernization Act, which Congress passed in 2010 in the wake of a nasty spinach E. coli outbreak and many other food safety scares. 

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Some have been frustrated that it took the FDA two years to arrive at the changes. In a strange role reversal, produce farmers have been practically begging the FDA to regulate their industry for years, with the United Fresh Produce Association repeatedly requesting "mandatory federal standards for fresh produce." And it's not hard to see why. Two of last year's bigger salmonella outbreaks originated from cantaloupe and mango farms. The CDC estimates that one in six Americans is affected by a foodborne pathogen each year, with 128,000 of them ending up hospitalized and 3,000 of them dying from such illnesses. Most of us probably assume that the produce we buy in grocery stores has been meticulously screened for bacteria and viruses. But the Pew Charitable Trust's director of food programs, Erik Olson, says the reality is that we've been using the same food safety laws "since the Great Depression." Here's how the proposed new rules will affect produce farmers... finally.

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How produce safety currently works

Farmers used to be pretty much on their own in developing a plan to prevent foodborne illness from tainting their product. An FDA Deputy Commissioner said that existing laws focussed on "catching food safety problems after the fact." Farmers weren't even legally bound to abide by mandatory recall efforts from the FDA. Most did so voluntarily, but going forward the FDA will gain the right to issue such enforceable recalls. And when it comes to imported food, the FDA currently only checks one pound out of every million that comes into the U.S. New rules will stipulate that overseas food suppliers comply with U.S. standards. 

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How these new rules would fix these problems

The biggest change FDA officials are touting in the new food safety rules is a shift from reacting to outbreaks to preventing them. "Food companies also would be required to have a plan for correcting any problems that might arise and for keeping records that F.D.A. inspectors could use for audit purposes," writes The New York Times's Stephanie Strom. And the new guidelines will make it harder for farmers to hide contaminations they've known about. The Center for Science in the Public Interest's Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal says, "This new system will protect against incidents where companies have tried to hide records that showed that their plants are contaminated."