Amid Latest Salmonella Outbreak, New Food Safety Rules Are Finally Announced

Amid Latest Salmonella Outbreak, New Food Safety Rules Are Finally Announced

But the ‘dramatic overhaul’ may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

(Photo: Flickr)

Sep 10, 2015

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Just in time for the latest nationwide salmonella outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration has issued long-awaited new rules aimed at overhauling food safety in America.

Oh, wait a minute—it’s not just in time. It’ll be another year or two before much of the food manufacturing industry has to comply. In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that at least 341 people have been sickened by salmonella-tainted cucumbers sold across 30 states, with two deaths confirmed thus far. The cucumbers were distributed by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, but because they are often sold without any identifying packaging, concerned shoppers with cukes chilling in their crisper would do well to check out the CDC page devoted to the outbreak, as well as Andrew & Williamson’s list of the stores it supplies.

For its part, the FDA is crowing about its finalization of the food safety rules, calling the action “one of the most significant steps in decades to prevent foodborne illness.”

But that’s kind of like your 14-year-old bragging about finishing his English paper after you had to threaten him with no Xbox for a week until he got it done.

You see, it’s been five years since Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, what the FDA (and others) have characterized as “the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years.” The dramatic overhaul was in response to a number of high-profile outbreaks of food-borne illness, including a nasty batch of peanut butter contaminated with salmonella in 2008–2009 that sickened 714 Americans and killed at least nine.

But in keeping with its reputation for foot dragging, the FDA stalled in coming up with the new regulations required by the law—indeed, it has been so slow that a number of advocacy groups had to sue the agency to force it into action. Hence the grudging response from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to the FDA’s announcement, one decidedly less exuberant than the agency’s own press release. “It has been a long slow slog, but our country has now taken a major step toward creating a truly modern food safety system,” CSPI said in a statement.

What do the new rules do? In a nutshell (though not one of those salmonella-tainted peanut shells), they are intended to shift the focus from responding to outbreaks of food-borne illness to preventing them, primarily by requiring food manufacturers to prepare detailed food safety plans that the feds can then use to hold the companies accountable.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s taken decades to make it happen—not to mention a seemingly endless litany of recalls of everything from bagged salad to ice cream, cantaloupes to caramel apples. Only two of the seven new rules have been finalized—so we still have a long way to go.

Here’s the real rub: The FDA may not even have enough money to implement the rules the way Congress intended, thanks to, well, Congress.

In yet another case in which lawmakers garner big headlines for taking action on an issue of critical public concern while at the same time stealthily refusing to fund the law they just passed, the Congressional Budget Office found that even as the FDA should have gotten $580 million between 2011 and 2015 to carry out the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act, in reality Congress shelled out less than half that amount. The agency only received $27.5 million for the law during the last fiscal year, even though it requested more than three times that for the current one, The New York Times reported in April.

So we might do well to hold our applause—but not our breath—until lawmakers are willing to fully fund this “historic” overhaul of our food safety system. As one consumer activist aptly put it in the Times: “If [the FDA doesn’t] have the capacity to enforce it, the law is not going to be worth the paper it’s written on.”

As for the current salmonella outbreak, the cucumbers were grown in Mexico, and while FSMA includes proposals for new regulations, including holding importers accountable for the food safety measures on the foreign farms they contract with, those rules have yet to be enacted. In 2012, the FDA inspected just 2 percent of imported food.