As a food safety researcher and advocate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), I was really impressed by Thursday's Senate HELP Committee hearing, Keeping America's Families Safe: Reforming the Food Safety System. A confluence of witnesses from a diversity of sectors- industry, government, and the public- participated and voiced agreement on an issue that cannot be denied. And in this era of partisan wrangling, the amount of support showed by both Democrats and Republicans makes it clear that it's truly time for our food safety system to be modernized. Legislation that has passed the House, and its companion in the Senate (S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act), would give FDA new authorities, tools, and resources to comprehensively reform the nation's food safety systems.
After working in CSPI's food safety program for several years, I know how long and hard public health and food safety advocates have worked to gather the facts to build the case in Congress and the Administration for reform of the food system. Some have literally spent decades on the issue and were thrilled to see these efforts come to fruition with the passage of the bill in the House. We watched that final vote on the House Bill in a small office with all the staff and interns crowded around a computer screen, and our corner of the office erupted into cheers when we saw the results. Sitting in the hearing room on Thursday, I could feel the momentum building for legislation to pass in the Senate. If the momentum and support continue to grow, we will see success in the coming months.
In the first panel of witnesses, Senator Durbin brought peanut butter, spinach, and tomatoes as a reminder of the common foods that have caused a number of very large-scale outbreaks in recent years, leading to a decline in consumer confidence and economic losses to the industries of those foods. What I appreciated the most was that Senator Durbin brought the true burden of foodborne illness into perspective by sharing stories and pictures of people who lost loved ones after eating contaminated food. It was an important reminder that the real issue is about protecting the health of people, and the Center for Disease Control's estimated 76 million illnesses a year isn't just a number; it's a reality. People should not be dying from foodborne illness in a country that can use resources to prevent such widespread outbreaks.
FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg followed Senator Durbin and also showed strong support of the bill. She expressed that the FDA is already making efforts this year to improve their inspection system, but new legislation would provide the FDA with the tools it needs to be able to work effectively.
The second panel included Caroline Smith DeWaal (my boss), representing the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Michael Roberson, representing the Food Marketing Institute; Daniel Ragan, from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Food & Drug Protection Division; and Thomas Stenzel, representing the United Fresh Produce Association. The witnesses represented a broad range of backgrounds, from industry to government to public interest, yet they all agreed on the same idea: People need to eat, and they shouldn't die from it. Legislation needs to be passed soon to prevent future illnesses and loss to industry, to enable the government to perform its job of protecting the public's health, and to restore the lost consumer confidence in the food supply.
The hearing came just two weeks after "Food Safety Action Day," when victims of foodborne illnesses and their families met with their senators to ask, "When will you make our food safe?" What an appropriate question, since our Food and Drug Administration is operating on a number of laws that are 50 to 100 years old, the oldest being the Food and Drug Act of 1906. After large outbreaks in recent years, Congress has held many hearings and introduced food safety bills. The public also shows widespread support, with 90 percent supporting the federal government adopting new safety measures in the public, according to a poll on Americans' Attitudes on Food Safety, commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and conducted by Hart Research/Public Opinion Strategies. How often do 9 out of 10 Americans agree on an issue? With such support, now is the time to pass food safety legislation, and not wait until the next large outbreak to fix our food safety system.
The good news is that legislators are listening. In the midst of controversial topics such as health care reform and climate change legislation, there is an amazing opportunity to pass this bi-partisan legislation that has such sweeping support from the public. I find it a refreshing change to have legislation with bi-partisan consensus, and it would be a great success for Congress to work together to pass food safety legislation this year.
Chairman Tom Harkin ended the hearing by saying, "hopefully we can go to a markup soon, and hopefully get this billed passed and onto the White House before this year's end." Let's hold him to his word and make sure the Senate does just that.
Food Safety Research Assistant
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)
The opinions here are the author's alone and do not represent the official policy for the entire Make Our Food Safe coalition.