Consumer groups push Senate for action on food safety bill

Sep 8, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – In a move designed to draw attention to languishing food safety legislation in the US Senate, three national consumer groups today reported that 85 food recalls have been issued in the 13 months since similar legislation passed in the House.

At a press conference in Washington, DC, and in a press release representatives from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups (USPIRG), and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) said the 85 food recalls issued during Senate inaction on food safety reform have connections to at least 1,850 illnesses, most of them in the recent Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) outbreak linked to eggs from two Iowa companies.

The groups pressed the Senate to resume work on food safety legislation when it reconvenes on Sep 13. The House passed its version of the food safety bill (HR 2749, known as the Food Safety Enhancement Act), which is similar to the Senate's bill (S 510, called the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act).

In a separate statement today, Caroline Smith DeWaal, the CSPI's director of food safety, said the food safety legislation approved by the House and pending before the Senate should make recalls less frequent and outbreaks less dangerous because they mandate preventive control systems for food companies.

The groups said the two bills also give the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to inspect food processing facilities, conduct microbial testing, and order food companies to recall potentially contaminated food. The Senate's version requires more frequent inspections for high-risk producers.

In press conferences about the SE investigation, FDA officials have expressed frustration with the Senate's lack of action on its food safety bill. They have said passage of the bill would have sped the removal of the eggs from the market and streamlined the investigation by improving the food traceability system and access to company records.

Chris Waldrop, who directs the CFA's Food Policy Institute, said in the press release that most Americans probably assume that the FDA regularly inspects farms and processors and orders food off the market when it finds evidence of contamination. "In fact, neither of the assumptions is true. The Senate food safety bill would give the FDA the authority it needs to do its job," he said.

Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate for US PIRG, said in the statement that current laws often put the FDA in a reactive mode, tracking the source of an outbreak long after the food has been sold. She said US PIRG is activating its national grassroots network to push the Senate to vote on S 510. "We need this food safety reform legislation so that the FDA can focus on preventing contamination in the first place—before it ends up in Americans' cupboards and refrigerators."

A report from the three groups' researchers says that a wide variety of foods were recalled during the 13-month stall in Senate legislation. They wrote that Salmonella findings prompted 36 of the recalls, followed closely by Listeria monocytogenes, with 32 recalls.

The report also details the impact of the recalls on each state. For example, 79 recalls affected products distributed in California, whereas Idaho, Mississippi, and Montana were affected by 44 of the recalls.

Craig Hedberg, PhD, a foodborne disease epidemiologist and professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health's environmental health sciences division, told CIDRAP News that the Senate needs to pass S 510 to confirm the importance of food safety in the United States.

"Beyond giving FDA more resources and authority for food safety, passage of the bill will send a clear message to food producers, regulators, and the public that food safety is a national priority," he said. "That message, even more than the specific details of the legislation, is needed to help build a culture of food safety and mutual accountability that will make it harder for individuals and organizations to get away with lax practices, or even to consider cutting corners on food safety."

If the legislation is enacted, the changes may not make an immediate impact, because new rules and policies will need to be developed and will likely be implemented in phases, Hedberg said. "But they will help strengthen the food safety system into the future," he added. "The sooner we take that next big step, the better."

See also:

Sep 8 CSPI press release

Sep 8 CSPI, US PIRG, CFA report

Sep 8 statement from Caroline Smith DeWaal

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