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The Food Safety Modernization Act, Another Critical Piece of Health Reform

By Dr. Charlie Preston

On this blog site, I’ve been asked to write about prevention and health reform. And I am going to do that, but not about prevention and the Affordable Care Act, rather about prevention and food safety, under the umbrella of public health reform. It is worth pointing out that there were a dizzying number of prevention and public health laws passed by Congress in the last two years. In addition to major tobacco control legislation, the Affordable Care Act, and the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011.

The FSMA is the most sweeping piece of food legislation since the 1938 passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and it couldn’t have come at a more critical time. Last year, forty-eight million people suffered from food-borne illness, around 120,000 were hospitalized, and nearly 3,000 died. The law combats this scourge in 3 major ways: 1) by focusing on prevention, 2) by improving detection and response tools, and 3) by enhancing the safety of imported food.

The law represents a major shift in the way that food safety is handled in the United States. For the first time ever, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency that regulates most foods except meat, poultry, and eggs, will have the authority to put into place prevention controls throughout the continuum of food production. This is a shift away from reaction to outbreaks and towards preventing them from ever happening in the first place. Specifically, the law requires that food processors identify hazards in their production lines and develop plans to mitigate these hazards. It establishes standards for the handling of fruits and vegetables as well, including appropriate soil, worker hygiene, packaging, temperature, and water conditions.

The law also provides better tools to detect and respond to food safety threats. For example, food production facilities are to be inspected according to a risk-based methodology. Factors like history of prior violations, previous compliance of the facility, and the rigor of the hazard analysis plan will be considered in this assessment. In response to any detected problems, the FDA has new authority to force a recall of tainted foods.

Finally, the law addresses the increasing amount of food imported into the United States. Now, more than 15% of the US food supply, including 80% of all seafood, is brought in from overseas. To assure its safety, the law gives FDA the authority to require that domestic importers verify that the food coming from suppliers is safe. It increases inspections of foreign food facilities and attempts to build capacity of foreign governments to improve safety conditions. To help with these activities, the law mandates the FDA to establish international offices. Some of these offices are already up-and-running, in places like China and India, where so many imports come from.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that funding for the new law will necessitate $1.4 billion over 5 years. There are already rumblings that in such a budget constrained environment, this funding won’t materialize. But if you want a safer food supply, and you believe in a prevention oriented approach, urge your lawmakers to appropriate this money. For more information on the law, go to:

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