Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=161107
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 11:10:20 AM CST
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of handling what may become the biggest food recall in its history.
Last week it announced that salmonella was found in a flavoring used in thousands of products, from soups and sauces to hot dogs and snack foods. The flavoring, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, was produced by Basic Food Flavors Inc., based in Nevada. There have been no reports of illness or death due to the flavoring.
More than 100 products have been recalled, and the list is growing.(See link for complete list of recalled products.)
Based on current law, the FDA can only ask food manufacturers to recall their products. The agency has no legal authority to order recalls of food, aside from infant formula.
“This situation clearly underscores the need for new food safety legislation," said Dr. Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection, FDA’s Office of Foods, in a press release Tuesday.
The legislation Dr. Farrar wants may be on its way.
In March 2009 Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) sponsored a Senate bill to modernize FDA food safety regulations. The House passed a similar bill four months later, and the Senate plans to vote on Durbin’s bill this spring. It is expected to pass.
The country’s current food safety system was laid out in legislation in 1906. It has not been reformed since, except for some revised penalties in the 1930s.
“Over the last year we’ve seen major recalls of cookie dough tainted with E. coli, peanut butter and pistachios spiked with salmonella and chemically-contaminated Chinese imports,” Durbin said when he introduced the bill. “These are not isolated incidents and are the result of an outdated, underfunded and overwhelmed food safety system.”
The reasons for increased outbreaks are difficult to pinpoint, said Sarah Klein, staff attorney for the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“There is no clear cause,” she said, “ but we know the problem is getting bigger.”
Improved technology makes detection easier, said Klein. Also, with an increasingly industrialized food system, outbreaks tend to be larger and less sporadic This makes them more noticeable.
Shifting the focus
Durbin’s proposed legislation changes the focus from reacting to outbreaks of bacteria or disease to preventing them in the first place, said Sandra Eskin. She is director of the Food Safety Campaign of the Pew Health Group.
“The old law said if you produce adulterated food you will get punished,” Eskin said. “Now, we are saying you – the food supplier – have an obligation to provide safe food.”
Eskin said three specific reforms in Durbin’s bill indicate this shift.
The legislation will require food manufacturers to develop plans that clearly identify where contamination could occur in their plants. They also must outline specific steps to reduce contamination risks and handle outbreaks.
The bill also will regulate the number of visits FDA inspectors make to food processing plants. The goal is to help inspectors become more familiar with individual operations. As a result, the agency can respond more quickly to outbreaks.
“Today, on average, the FDA inspects food processing plants about once every 10.5 years,” Eskin said. Schedules for visits will vary based on the type of product.
In addition, the new legislation will allow the FDA to require manufacturers to recall any food product.
On the horizon
The House bill, according to the congressional budget office, would increase spending by $2 billion over the next four years. A study released last week by The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that the country spends $152 billion annually on food-borne illness.
The report also revealed that Illinois spends nearly $6.5 billion a year on such illnesses. This is roughly half the state’s projected deficit of $13 billion for fiscal 2010.
“We must give FDA the tools to prevent a food-borne illness outbreak before it happens, rather than react when it is already too late,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in a recent press release. He is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which approved the bill unanimously last fall.
“And when food is tainted, we must provide the tools to respond quickly and protect consumers. Both the House and Senate bills do just that and it is my hope that we can have a comprehensive food safety bill on the president’s desk in the very near future.”
According to a spokeswoman from Durbin's office, the bill has bipartisan support. The goal is to get the final bill on President Obama’s desk in May.