Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Food Safety for 2010: the Good, the Bad … and the Ugly

By James J. Gormley  
courtesy of NOW Foods
In October, we alerted you to serious worries about Senate Bill (S.) 510. Now that we have just started the New Year, let’s take a look back at the whole food safety picture in 2009 and how things are shaping up for 2010.

Here’s a partial run-down on some of the biggest food safety news stories of 2009:
  1. Starting in January 2009, a giant peanut manufacturing corporation began voluntary recalls of up to 3,918 products made with peanut butter and peanut paste that reportedly caused nine deaths and 714 confirmed cases of Salmonella in 46 states.
  2. In June and July of 2009, a fast-food restaurant in Milan, Illinois had two workers infected with hepatitis A working at the eatery; in addition to workers and customers getting sick, 10,000 people were exposed by the time the situation was under control.
  3. Beginning in July (going through December), two mammoth meat manufacturers (based in Denver, Colo. and Fresno, Calif.) recalled 1.314 million pounds of beef due to concerns that it was contaminated with three strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.
  4. On September 1st, the Washington Post alerted us to the case of a Nevadan woman severely injured by chocolate-chip cookie dough contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.
  5. On October 4th the New York Times’ Michael Moss reported that a children’s dance instructor from Minnesota was partially paralyzed from E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburgers she ate. The meat originated in massive slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas, Uruguay, and a South Dakota firm that treats fat trimmings with ammonia to kill bacteria.
  6. In December 2009, a series of articles in USA Today uncovered that Jack in the Box, Burger King and Costco are “are far more rigorous”─up to 10 times more stringent─ in checking for dangerous bacteria than is the USDA in setting standards for beef served to our children via the National School Lunch Program.

And lest these cases create the impression that contamination only relates to beef or peanut butter, posted “The 10 riskiest foods overseen by the FDA,”  which lists the top ten offending foods. In decreasing order of “riskiness,” the article listed (somewhat surprisingly) the following 10 foods and food products: leafy greens; eggs; tuna; oysters; potatoes; cheese; ice cream; tomatoes; sprouts; and berries.

What do 2009’s food-safety outbreaks mean to us?
What the outbreaks in 2009 (and, for that matter over the last 19 years) mean is this: Food production by gargantuan factories and slaughterhouses is questionable; one marked by potentially unsanitary practices and stopgap remedial treatments that don’t work well .

As to food safety bills on Capitol Hill, here’s where things stand as of this writing:

  • H.R. 759, or the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2009, sponsored by Congressman John Dingell (Mich.); 10 co-sponsors; introduced January 28th, 2009; referred to House Committee on Energy and Commerce on January 29, 2009.
  • H.R. 875, or the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, sponsored by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (Conn.); 40 co-sponsors; introduced February 4th, 2009; referred to House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry on April 23rd, 2009.
  • H.R. 1332, or the Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards, and Targeting (FEAST) Act of 2009, sponsored by Congressman Jim Costa (Calif.); 30 co-sponsors; introduced March 5, 2009; executive comment requested from the FDA and the USDA on April 23rd, 2009.
  • H.R. 2749, or the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, sponsored by Congressman John Dingell; 5 co-sponsors; passed under suspended rules on July 30, 2009.
  • Senate Bill (S.) 510, or the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin (Ill.); 15 co-sponsors; placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders (No. 247).

There are a couple of issues in these bills that stand out like sore thumbs. As to H.R. 875, this bill calls for the creation of yet another agency with another “czar”, the Food Safety Administration; not a welcome addition to fans of limited or more efficient government.

As to H.R. 2749, which passed the House already, this column has previously noted problems associated with this bill, including registration fees for food facilities and powers to “restrict the movement of food” by effectively quarantining (i.e., shutting down) a town, city or region. These aggressive new police powers should be reserved for demonstrable risks to public safety, not given freely as a blanket trust and authority granted to unelected agency bureaucrats.

On the positive side, thanks to grassroots advocacy organization new language in S. 510 exempts safe dietary supplements and organics while softening language relating to the threat of harmonization with Codex Alimentarius; however, there are still some areas of concern.

What will be the legislative fate of these bills?
Since H.R. 759 is considered the flagship House food-safety bill by Congresswoman DeLauro (who is the sponsor of H.R. 875, above) and since Congressman Dingell is the sponsor of H.R. 759 and of the House Bill which was last introduced but which passed first, I foresee two scenarios.

One strong probability is that all of the other House food-safety bills will fall by the wayside, since H.R. 2749 already passed and since S. 510 is likely to pass in the full Senate this year or early next.

A second possibility is that portions of H.R. 875 and 1332 will either make it into negotiations on the Senate side for S. 510─not very likely since H.R. 2749 has already passed─ or will be incorporated into this year’s agriculture appropriations bill, more likely since Congresswoman DeLauro was the sponsor of the 2009 “agriculture bill” that passed in October 2009.

Gormley Take-Away: Senate Bill 510 will likely be the “last man standing” in terms of food-safety bills in the remainder of this current 111th legislative session of Congress─ and perhaps in the first half of next year’s 112th session─and we do need to be vigilant on this bill before it becomes law.   Nevertheless, regardless of whatever food-safety bills are introduced or debated in 2010, we must push for increasing support of local food production (including food co-ops and community supported agriculture [CSA]). We also need food manufacturers to take more responsibility for ensuring the safety of the foods they produce by the use and enforcement of existing audited GMP and HACCP systems, backed up by testing. This will continue to keep the public safe and prevent Congress from setting up overly broad enforcement mechanisms without fixing the underlying problems.
The Gormley Files - Blogged