President Obama Signs Landmark Food Safety Bill

This afternoon, President Obama signed into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a major overhaul of food safety law and regulation. Consumer and food safety advocates are calling it a historic day. “This is the most important food safety advance in 70 years,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

For far too long, the FDA has been in reactive mode, chasing down contaminated food after people are already sick with E. coli, Salmonella, or other dangerous pathogens. Now, by incorporating modern scientific and legal tools, the FDA will put the horse before the cart, requiring food manufacturers and farmers to implement plans aimed at preventing contaminated products.

The law also gives the FDA the authority to order recalls of contaminated food, a power it does not currently possess.

But after a long, hard fight to make its way through Congress and onto the president’s desk, more trouble may be ahead for the bill. Although the law contains many provisions that should ultimately make the food we eat safer, it is not fully funded. In order to conduct the increased number of inspections the bill requires and to generally keep closer tabs on the food supply, Obama will have to request, and Congress will have to grant, significant budget increases for the FDA.

The law will “cost about $1.4 billion in its first five years,” according to The Washington Post. That certainly sounds like a significant amount of money, until you consider the cost of food safety failures. According to the Post (citing a Georgetown study) “food-borne illnesses cost the country $152 billion a year in medical costs, lost productivity and other expenses. That figure does not include costs to the food industry incurred when a product is recalled.”

But such evidence may not be worth a damn to an incoming Congress so paranoid about government spending that it’s willing to let Americans get sick or die. The Post reports, “Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA, has said that the number of cases of food-borne illnesses in the country does not justify the cost of the new law.” One in six Americans are stricken with foodborne illness each year, according to new statistics released by the CDC. The illnesses result in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

Negativity aside, today is a great day for American consumers. Closing the legislative chapter on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act allows us to open up a new chapter in which we can begin to enjoy a safer and more stable food supply and food industry.

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