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Without teeth, how will the Food Safety Modernization Act make our food safer?

Will the Food Safety Modernization Act really make our food safer?

After years of nauseating headlines, exposing everything from flame retardants in our butter to maggot and rodent-infested egg farms and salmonella-tainted peanut butter, we’d all like to believe so.

But as public health scholar Michael Osterholm points out in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, calling the act “historic legislation” – as many media outlets have done since Obama signed it into law Jan. 4 – could be gravely premature.

“The new law has a major shortcoming: Dollars,” writes Osterholm, PhD, director of the Center for Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Without the necessary resources, requiring the FDA to carry out the law’s required activities will be like trying to get blood out of a rock.”

In theory, the act could have a sweeping impact on the way the often reckless industrial food production machine behaves. The historically toothless agency can now order a recall, instead of relying on manufacturers to do so. It’s expected to conduct more frequent inspections, especially of high-risk foods and facilities. It can halt imports from foreign companies who refuse U.S. inspections. And it requires food companies to have a written plan in place for dealing with outbreaks.

Sounds promising, right? But how will this phalanx of intrepid inspectors get paid?

Osterholm notes that while the Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation will cost $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015, “there was no appropriation approved by the Congress for the act or authorization in the bill for the FDA to assess fees on the companies that it inspects.” (FDA can charge a fee when a plant must be re-inspected or a recall occurs, but these will generate minimal resources.) Without additional legislation providing funding, he predicts, the act’s impact will be “extremely limited.”

Just those words are deflating enough, but Osterholm’s piece points out another discouraging reality: How desperately we need it to work.

He calls into question recent CDC reports that food borne illnesses are in sharp decline, noting that much of the improvement took place between 1996 and 2000 before leveling off, and that some forms are actually on the rise. According to even the most optimistic numbers, 15 percent of us will be poisoned by our food this year.

In just one Salmonella outbreak - thanks to Peanut Corporation of America - as many as 700 people, half children, were sickened and nine died in 2008 and 2009. Among them was Shirley Mae Almer, 72, a spry Minnesota woman who survived lung cancer surgery and a brain tumor only to die from a peanut butter sandwich her daughter made for her.

Note to Congress (the one that reportedly spends millions funding NASCAR ads each year):

Think of Shirley next time the FDA budget comes up.

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