Federal, industry officials praise food safety law

Jan 3, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Federal health officials teamed up with industry and consumer-group leaders today to talk up the importance of the new food safety law and expressed confidence that it will make a big difference in the long run, even if Congress is in no mood to pay for implementing it.

"The Food Safety Modernization Act is the most significant food safety law of the past 100 years," Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at an afternoon press conference. She reported that President Obama plans to sign the bill, passed in December in the waning hours of the 111th Congress, tomorrow.

Sebelius and other officials stressed that the law aims to move the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the overall food safety system from a reactive to a preventive stance. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said this shift needs to happen even if the FDA doesn't get new funds to implement the law.

The legislation requires domestic food facilities to develop contamination-prevention plans, calls for more frequent facility inspections, increases monitoring of imported foods, expands FDA access to food records, and calls for improvements in foodborne-disease surveillance and tracing of contaminated foods. It also gives the FDA authority to order food recalls.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in August that implementing the law would cost $1.4 billion over 5 years. With Republicans poised to take control of the House of Representatives, some Republican leaders have voiced skepticism about providing the FDA any new funds for the law, in the face of massive federal budget deficits.

In praising the law today, Sebelius said, "Today our food safety system is mostly reactive. Under the new law the FDA will have power for the first time to require food facilities at every stage in the chain to adopt proven strategies to prevent contamination."

Noting that one sixth of the US food supply is imported, she said the law enhances the FDA's ability to ensure the safety of imported foods. "We'll be able to make sure sea bass from Chile will meet the same safety standards as lobsters from Maine."

But she cautioned, "The change won't happen overnight, and it's still essential that Congress will provide sufficient funding to make sure the changes take shape."

Eric Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs at the Pew Health Group, also praised the legislation and stressed the need for funds to make it work.

"FDA is going to need the resources to make this new law fulfill its promise," he said. Adding that a food recall in 2009 cost one company $60 million to $70 million, he added, "The costs of protecting our food supply are far greater than the costs of not protecting it."

Pam Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), said the group strongly supports the legislation, which "will raise the bar for the entire industry."

Bailey also said the law offers a balanced emphasis on industry responsibility and government regulation. "This coordinated approach—industry vigilance combined with tough government oversight—we're certain will pave the way for a safer food supply in 2011 and beyond," she predicted.

Hamburg noted that the FDA already has safety standards for seafood, juice, and shell eggs. Under the new law, the agency will be able to set standards for the other commodities it regulates, she said. Those include most foods other than meat and poultry, which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture.

In response to questions about the FDA's ability to implement the law with limited funds, Hamburg commented that the measure essentially calls for building "a whole new food safety system."

"Some of those elements we've been working on and will be able to put into place fairly quickly, while others will require new resources," she said. "We'll be working closely with Congress and other stakeholders to specify those needs, and I'm very optimistic that we'll be able to move forward to implement this bill."

Hamburg further commented that the law has "many elements" that will permit the FDA to be more effective in the long run, including placing greater responsibility on the food industry to embrace a preventive approach to food safety. She also said some FDA budget increases in recent years will be helpful.

In response to further questions about funding and implementation, Hamburg said, "Some key elements need to be implemented no matter what. The shift from a reactive to a preventive mode is something we're committed to, and Congress has given us a mandate." The costs of not doing so "are simply unacceptable," she added.

She cited the development of produce safety regulations and the establishment of preventive control measures as steps the FDA can take fairly quickly, in partnership with industry.

The FDA was working on produce safety standards well before the food safety law passed, and Hamburg said today that the agency is "fairly far along in developing science-based minimum standards for safe production and harvesting." She reported that the proposed deadline for unveiling the standards is about a year from now.

See also:

Dec 23, 2010, CIDRAP News story "Implementing food safety law to pose big challenges"

This week's top reads