New Rules Will Make Your Thanksgiving Dinner Safer – in a Couple of Years

As you plan your Thanksgiving dinner menu, stop and give thanks for new rules issues by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on November 13th just in time for our uniquely American holiday dedicated to feasting. The rules mean the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011 has finally been implemented.

The FSMA was passed in 2011 after several tainted food episodes resulted in illnesses and deaths. The most recent is a tainted food outbreak in Chipotle restaurants that has sickened at least 40 people in several states. A new Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis found that large multi-state outbreaks of food-related illnesses tripled over the past five years. Multi-state outbreaks caused 34 percent of hospitalizations and 56 percent of deaths from contaminated foods.

The good news is that three new rules issued this month should reduce these outbreaks – once they’re in force over the next several years.

One rule sets standards for growing, harvesting, packing and storing produce. Contaminated produce is the leading cause of food-related illnesses and the second leading cause of deaths due to food contamination. The produce safety rule will require farmers to ensure that the water used for irrigation and other uses is safe from contamination, and that workers are trained on good hygiene practices.

Two additional rules require certification of the origin and safety of food imports.

In addition to the produce safety rule, FDA also issued two rules requiring that imported food meets U.S. safety standards based on a program using third-party auditors to ensure that imported food is safe to eat. Whether imported foods are safe will depend on whether the third-parties hired for the certification process are truly independent from influence by the companies that hire them.  

While these rules should improve food safety, they were delayed more than three years after the deadline set by the law (which was July 2012). The FDA rules were subjected to an excruciatingly long and extended review process and were only issued after FDA was sued by public interest groups.  And after the long wait, the protections won’t actually go into effect for two years on most farms. There is an additional one to two year extension for small businesses. Compliance with the food import rules won’t be required for another 18 months.

But the FDA won’t be able to ensure the rules are being followed without adequate funding - and Congress isn’t providing enough.

The Obama administration has requested almost $110 million for the coming fiscal year for FDA to implement these and other food safety rules that were required by the FSMA. However, Congress’ draft budget provides only $45 million for implementing these rules as well as food process safety rules for human and animal foods issued earlier this year. Four years ago, Congress acted in response to public demand for higher food safety standards.  It now needs to come up with the funds to make sure those higher food safety rules are enforced. If they don’t, those completely preventable multi-state tainted food episodes could be coming to your dinner table.

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