January 4, 2013 marked the second anniversary of the signing of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law. To mark the occasion, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released two proposed food safety rules, which had been under review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for over a year. The first rule requires food companies to adopt preventive controls for reducing or eliminating pathogens in the food they produce while the second rule sets out requirements for the safe production of fresh fruits and vegetables on the farm1. Two additional rules remain under review at OMB—a proposed rule on preventive controls for animal feed and rules outlining a new foreign supplier verification program for imported food.
Preventive controls and produce safety are cornerstones of FDA’s new preventive approach to food safety, as envisioned in FSMA. The law was put into place after several years of high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks linked to contaminated foods such as spinach, peppers, green onions, peanut butter and eggs. Thousands of consumers across the country were sickened by these outbreaks and a number of consumers died. In passing FSMA, Congress clearly recognized the need to modernize the 100-year-old laws governing the FDA so that the agency could work to prevent these types of outbreaks from occurring in the first place. The two rules released on January 4 are just the beginning of what will undoubtedly be years of work before the FDA can fully implement the new law.
Any final FSMA rules will not, however, address issues of meat and poultry safety, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. FSIS has made some recent progress in addressing food safety issues such as banning six additional strains of pathogenic E. coli, developing new standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry and requiring companies to hold product pending confirmation of agency test results. However the agency lacks some of the new authorities granted to FDA under FSMA including enforceable performance standards, mandatory recall authority and greater flexibility in shutting down a plant that is producing contaminated food. As a next step in improving our food safety system, Congress should begin the process of examining how best to modernize the laws governing meat and poultry inspection.
Ultimately though, we need to consolidate federal food safety functions into a single, independent agency responsible for the safety of the entire food supply. While FDA and FSIS get the most attention, our food safety system has evolved over many decades into a complex web of agencies and laws. Jurisdiction for food safety is spread across at least 12 different federal agencies who administer approximately 30 different laws. Coordination among those agencies is often lacking, as highlighted by a recent USDA Office of Inspector General report on egg safety. A single independent agency would unify all federal food safety functions under one roof with a dedicated budget and a single official responsible for the oversight of the safety of the nation’s entire food supply. We must continue to implement FSMA and modernize FSIS’ laws, but with an ultimate goal of unifying food safety responsibilities in a single independent agency.
1At publication time, Consumer Federation of America was still reviewing the proposed rules. Comments on those rules will likely be the subject of future blog posts.