President Obama signs food safety bill

New law overhauling nation's food safety system has backing of restaurant groups

President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday sweeping legislation intended to improve the nation's food safety system.

The law known as the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act was two years in the making and has the backing of both the National Restaurant Association and the National Council of Chain Restaurants.

The legislation represents the largest overhaul of the country’s food safety system in more than 70 years, supporters have said. It will empower the Food and Drug Administration to order recalls of tainted foods; increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities; require the FDA to draft new rules for the growers and processors of higher-risk fruits and vegetables; and create stricter food safety standards for imported foods, among other provisions.

To fully implement the proposed changes would require an additional $1.4 billion in funding for the FDA over the next five years, congressional analysts have indicated.

But such funding is not necessarily a sure thing, according to a representative for Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who in the last session headed the House of Representative’s agriculture appropriations committee, which oversees the FDA’s budget, and is seeking that post again this year. Republicans control the House after last fall’s mid-term elections.

Chris Crawford, Kingston’s communications director, said the FDA is already “99.99 percent” effective in keeping the food-supply safe, according to his office’s math using Census figures and statistics recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC recently said that it estimated that one in six Americans, or about 48 million people, are sickened from foodborne illnesses each year, with about 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 related deaths.

That number of deaths is “unacceptable,” Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Monday as she applauded passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act and Obama’s intent to sign it into law.

“We want to see that number come down from 48 million [people sickened] a year," Crawford said, "but if you look at it, it is still, statistically, a low number, in the context of our total interaction with food.” Considering that 308 million Americans eat at least three meals a day in a 365-day year, “I think there is something like a 1-in-10,000 chance of getting a foodborne illness” from something you eat, he said.

“Our question is, did we take enough time to look at what works and what restaurateurs and farmers and food producers, and the people who handle food, have been doing themselves that has reduced the incidences of foodborne illness” before passing the law, Crawford said. The ultimate question, he said, is this: “$1.4 billion over five years for something that has a better than 99.99-percent success rate already – Is that the right way to spend money right now?”

Erik Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs at the nonprofit Pew Health Group, believes it is.

“The cost of not implementing this law would be staggering,” he said Monday during a press conference with backers of the new law, including Sebelius of Health and Human Services. Olson said a recent study by a former FDA economist pegs the annual health care cost to America from foodborne illnesses at $152 billion.

In her Monday press conference remarks, Sebelius noted that the new law would give federal food safety efforts more of an “emphasis on prevention,” as opposed to its now “mostly reactive” stance. She stressed that the changes “won’t happen overnight” and are dependent on funding from Congress.

Margaret Hamburg, FDA commissioner, another speaker, noted that she was confident that the envisioned changes will come about, though “we have to be realistic about the timeline.” She noted that Congress has asked FDA to put in place a whole new food safety system and the effectiveness and efficiency of the effort will rely not only on additional funding, but also on new partnerships between FDA and state and local governments and industry.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected]