Natural Foods Merchandiser

How food safety legislation came about

Nationwide deaths from suspect spinach and tainted peanut butter made food safety a hot topic in Washington, D.C., in 2009. Noting that food-borne illness kills an estimated 5,000 Americans each year, President Obama announced a Food Safety Working Group in March 2009. The group issued recommendations for streamlining the work of a dozen government agencies. Obama called it “unacceptable” that the Food and Drug Administration, which used to inspect food processing plants every other year, now visits fewer than 5 percent a year.

No fewer than five bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate in 2009. By the end of the year, one bill had passed the House, the Food Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2749). The Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), moved out of committee in November. Observers expect the full Senate to take up the measure early in 2010.

While it’s hard to determine the specifics of the final legislation, “my best guess, based on a number of conversations, is February or March for a signed bill,” says Washington, D.C., attorney Mark Mansour, who practices food and drug law.

Advocates for organic food have pushed for exemptions to keep new traceback and record-keeping requirements from burdening small businesses that already meet organics’ higher standards for safety and oversight. “All of us would like to see the food safety system safer,” says Aimee Witteman, executive director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “We want them to make sure [tighter regulation] does not disproportionately impact small producers.”

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