With last month’s indictment of Peanut Corporation of America officials for knowingly sending out salmonella-contaminated products to be sold to the public, food safety is again on our minds. About 50 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, and about 3,000 die. Many are on edge about what they eat because of the threat of foodborne illness. We all recall stories of the spinach contaminated with E. coli and cantaloupe contaminated with salmonella. I’m still afraid to eat Frosted Mini-Wheats because of the metal mesh. In addition to illness and the lives lost, the economic impact for the nation is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
This is why Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2010 that is only now beginning to be implemented. The Act is an amendment to the already-existing Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C) and broadens the FDA’s power in order to prevent such outbreaks of foodborne illness and intentional tampering of food (think terrorism). The Act gives the FDA more power to inspect company records. For example, in the Sunland peanut butter salmonella outbreak, Sunland knew there was contamination in its facility but it wasn’t required to make that known and the FDA had no power to inspect company documents. Under FSMA, not only would the FDA have power to look at records regarding the facility, machinery and peanut butter, it would have the power to inspect records about almond butter if almond butter was produced on the same equipment as the tainted peanut butter. Seems like a common sense thing to do anyway. The FDA would not have access to a company’s financial or pricing information or its trade secrets/recipes–just information relevant to the outbreak.
Food businesses do have their concerns with this increased FDA presence in their business, and those are liability or lawsuits from private individuals and the cost of compliance. Some businesses are exempt from the Act’s new requirements if they are considered very small with limited sales or geographic area. Food companies that are not exempt have to register their facilities and renew their registration every two years. They also have to conduct a hazard analysis so that potential threats to food safety can be identified.
There already are safety standards in place, and things like produce and seafood have higher regulation than less risky foods. Under FSMA, these type of food producers will come under stricter scrutiny to ensure food safety. (The FSMA doesn’t cover meat, poultry and eggs–that’s the jurisdiction of the USDA, but it does cover what amounts to 80% of our food supply.) For example, farmers will have to make sure that any water that touches produce is safe.
Another aspect of the new law is that it will give the FDA more authority over regulating imported food. A scary statistic is that of the 60,000 food importers the United States currently has, only 2% of imported food is inspected. FSMA expands FDA authority to deny imported food from a foreign facility if the FDA is denied access to that facility or country where it is located. Under the new law, foreign facilities can be certified to ensure facilities are adhering to United States food safety standards.
While the main function and reason for FSMA is to prevent food contamination, if such contamination occurs, FSMA gives the FDA authority to enforce a mandatory recall of a product if the company doesn’t recall it on its own. On February 13, 2013, the FDA issued its first mandatory recall on a pet treat company in Denver. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 gave the FDA power to order administrative detention of any food if the FDA had credible evidence that the food posed the threat of serious health risk. The new law gives the FDA more authority, that it can detain food if the FDA has reason to believe it’s tainted. (Of course, there is due process and food producers can request a hearing.)
What does this mean for food producers who fall under the FSMA? Much more paperwork and more cost to ensure they are complying with the Act. What does this mean to consumers? Hopefully, as time goes by and these new standards are in place and adhered to, foodborne illness statistics will dramatically decline. More cost borne by food producers means less cost borne by food consumers. Now, food producers are grumbling at the cost of compliance, but in the end, I think food producers will see a benefit, as it strengthens consumer confidence in food products.