THE BLOG

Finally Food Safety is the Main Course

Aug 13, 2009 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Did you know that farms and food processors are inspected on average once every 10 years? No wonder there are so many instances of food contamination in the U.S., leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands hospitalized each year. Despite the toll, the federal government has shown no willingness to butt heads with the powerful food lobby and provide adequate protection for consumers and proper controls for industry, until now.

As profits and consumer confidence have plummeted with each new outbreak, the political climate has changed. So much so that in early June the House Energy and Commerce Committee reached unusual bipartisan consensus on the most sweeping reform of the food safety-system in at least 50 years.

At the center of the legislation is an effort to transform a slow and reactive government apparatus into a preventive food-safety system. The bill gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad new powers to regulate produce at the farm level and review corporate records on activities ranging from food-processing to pathogen-testing. Rather than once every 10 years, inspections would take place as often as once every six months for certain items. Foreign governments whose companies send high-risk products to the U.S., like seafood from China, would be required to certify that those exports comply with U.S. health standards.

The legislation is in sync with the plans announced earlier this week of a White House panel, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to shift the focus of food regulation toward preventing outbreaks rather than reacting to them "after they've left the barn" as they say. The Food and Drug Administration used the announcement to introduce a rule aimed at reducing salmonella infections from raw or undercooked eggs by 60%, or 79,000 illnesses a year. The regulation, among other things, requires egg producers to test their facilities for salmonella and buy chicks only from farmers who monitor for the pathogen.

The White House panel also called upon the agencies to make several other changes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, is developing standards to reduce salmonella contamination in turkey and chicken by the end of the year and will step up testing of beef to reduce E. coli contamination this month. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration is developing voluntary guidelines to reduce E. coli in melons, tomatoes and leafy greens.

The political climate has indeed changed. Having lost billions of dollars to recent outbreaks, the food industry is now welcoming the White House panel's recommendations as the best way to turn around consumer confidence. Tougher food safety rules, will certainly help, but our system remains deeply flawed and consumers should remain vigilant. Here's some good advice: Learn where animals came from and what they were fed, avoiding those that have been packed in disease-promoting factory farms and feedlots or contaminated with mercury or PCBs from polluted waterways. Be wise this summer as you plan your next picnic or cookout with these smart shopping tips and safe food handling advice from NRDC's Simple Steps.