Yes We Can - And Should - Make Our Food Safer

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

By Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group Founder & President

We're all used to hearing Big Food and Big Ag brag about America having "the safest food supply in the world," usually as a warm-up for complaining that EWG and other critics of our food system are, well, out to lunch. But the facts about food safety - food poisoning in particular - are nothing for the richest country in the world to crow about.

The US food safety problem

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year more than 76 million Americans get sick because of something they ate. Some 325,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 die from food-borne illnesses. At least half the reported cases involve children. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts Produce Safety Project estimates the total cost of food-related sickness at more than $150 billion annually.

U.S. food producers have issued 85 food recalls since July 2009. Most recently, more than half a billion eggs from just two mega-farms were pulled from store shelves. The problems are too many and have been around for far too long to list here.

Relief is in sight

The Congress is poised to approve sweeping reforms that would allow the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and food processors and producers to identify possible contamination and take immediate action to protect large numbers of people from sickness or death.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) authored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and supported by a long list of public health, environmental and consumer watchdog groups, is expected to come up for a Senate vote in the next week or so. The House of Representatives passed its version of a food safety bill earlier this year.

The Durbin bill would:

* Require food processors to anticipate and prevent possible contamination in the food production process.

* Increase FDA inspections of food-processing plants based on risk associated with a particular product.

* Require imported food to meet the same safety standards as domestic food.

* Establish science-based minimum standards for safe fresh produce farming.

* Empower FDA to order mandatory recalls.

Rumors and reality

Internet rumors that the bill would kill small farms, eliminate farmers' markets, prohibit home gardens or mandate the use of GMOs or pesticides flat out are not true. Moreover, the bill offers significant protections for small operations. It would:

* Ensure that FDA produce regulations do not conflict with organic requirements or duplicate other rules--something vitally important to EWG, which has played a major role fostering the establishment and growth of the organic food industry in this country.

* Require FDA to consider the impact of regulation on conservation and on small and diverse farms.

* Exempt small operators who produce food for farmers' markets, bake sales, directly for restaurants or for their own consumption from new recordkeeping requirements levied on large operations.

* Limit FDA's rule-making authority to foods it already regulates.

* Give small processors additional time to comply with new safety practices and guidelines.

* Require FDA to minimize paperwork for small processors.

* Give FDA discretion to limit safety standards for small businesses that produce or harvest low-risk food.

* Provide training and technical assistance grants to small farmers and processors to help them comply with the new law.

This legislation will benefit small farmers by helping FDA trace the source of an outbreak more quickly, so that other producers and processors won't suffer unnecessarily. We stand ready to support additional amendments to the Senate bill to make more improvements to assist small farms.

Learn more

A trip to the supermarket or a restaurant need not be a roll of the dice. For the first time in more than 70 years we could see a much-needed change in the way our food is produced, processed and inspected. These reforms could protect each and every person.

To read more about the legislation and the overall issue of food safety in the U.S., we encourage readers to visit the website of Make Our Food Safe, a coalition of some of the most well-respected public health, environmental and consumer organizations. These groups have been working together for many years to make our food system safe for everyone.

Thanks to Flickr CC & Darwin Bell for the great egg.


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