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Food safety reform: We need you NOW!

If I read another news report of U.S. Marshals seizing food or dietary supplement products from rodent- or feces-infested warehouses or of another salmonella outbreak sweeping the country, I am going to scream. No, actually what will really tip me over the edge is if the food safety bill (S.510)—which is by no means perfect but at least will give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more muscle to deal with such blatant food safety violations—does not pass this year because of partisan bickering over government spending, tax cuts and Obama’s healthcare reform.

The latest news of flagrant food safety defiance hit my desk yesterday. The FDA reported that it had seized chili pods, ground chili, crushed chili and other chili products from a warehouse teeming with rodents and insects owned by Duran and Sons LLC in Derry, New Mexico. “The alleged violations at this facility are serious and widespread,” Dara A. Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, said in a statement. “This prompted the FDA to take aggressive enforcement action to protect the health of consumers.”

S.510 to the rescue?

If passed, the Food Safety Modernization Act (otherwise known as S.510) would give the FDA the authority to test for pathogens and recall tainted food—basically identify and deal with companies like Duran and Sons or the Peanut Corporation of America or Wright County Egg before they are able to sicken people with their dangerous food. As healthy food advocates Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser noted in a Nov. 28 New York Times editorial supporting S.510: “The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill. The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants.”

Such inspections cost money, of course. That’s why a large portion of S.510’s $1.4 billion price tag goes toward providing FDA with the financial resources it will need to carry out the provisions in the bill. In my view, if the bill's $1.4 billion really can help the FDA prevent future outbreaks of food-borne illness, it will have been money well spent.

50 million victims of unsafe food

A new report released today from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides even more data emphasizing the need for food safety reform. According to the CDC, approximately one in six Americans is sickened by contaminated food each year. Another 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from food-borne illnesses. This means nearly 50 million people are the victims of the United States’ woefully inadequate food safety system each year.

As S.510 supporter Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) noted in a statement today: “If we do not act quickly to modernize our food safety system, millions more Americans will fall ill due to contaminated food, and thousands more will die, which is why I hope Congress will send the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to President Obama before the end of the year.”

So where is S.510 now? After getting folded into the larger government funding bill by the House, the food safety bill was passed back to the Senate. CQ Today reports that the Senate Appropriations Committee attached S.510 in its draft spending bill, which has been moved to the House. If the food safety legislation can survive the political wrangling that is likely still to be in store for the government funding bill, maybe the FDA will finally be able to do more to stop salmonella-tainted peanuts, E. coli-contaminated spinach and rodent-infested food warehouses.

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