Increasing food safety

Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The overall safety of the nation's food supply is strong. But a string of food-borne illnesses from some of the country's favorite foods understandably has shaken confidence. Passage last month of the Food Safety Enhancement Act by the House was a good first step in addressing deficiencies in anticipating, locating and removing harmful products on store shelves. Unfortunately, there is no timetable yet for consideration in the Senate.

Over the past three years, there have been salmonella outbreaks in tomatoes, peppers, spinach, peanuts, pistachios and cookie dough. It was the alleged actions last year of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America that clearly exposed the limitations in current law. The company was accused by the Food and Drug Administration of lab shopping for good test results of its product and then knowingly shipping tainted merchandise to stores. The FDA doesn't have the authority to order product testing, require that test results be shared with the agency or issue a mandatory recall when a facility moves too slowly.

These are the deficiencies the Food Safety Enhancement Act seeks to correct. Companies would be required to develop and implement written food safety plans. These would include developing procedures for conducting hazard analysis, instituting preventive controls and taking corrective action, including plans for recalling products. The government would be able to access those records in an emergency. The bill would give the FDA the authority to order that products be recalled. It would require the secretary of health and human services to establish a system to trace the origins of food from farm to fork. This would make it easier to find the sources of contamination. And there would be funding for more inspectors.

All of these provisions make sense. What's needed is action in the Senate. We understand that its docket is full, but leaders must find a way to make passage a priority before the next food-borne outbreak demonstrates anew how ill-equipped government is to respond.



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