Everyone wants safer food. And nearly everyone wants legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) new, long overdue authority and resources to improve the United States' food safety system.
Overwhelming majorities of voters in states across the country – 89 percent of North Carolina voters, 91 percent of Ohio voters, and 91 percent of Nevada voters, among others polled – support FDA reform legislation, according to new bipartisan polls commissioned by the Pew Health Group. These findings reinforce the results of a nationwide poll conducted this summer, which found that 89 percent of voters support new food safety legislation – an endorsement that crosses gender, age, economic, and partisan lines. Furthermore, while they disagree on the finer points of the legislation currently moving through Congress, victims' groups, consumer groups such as the National Consumers League – the oldest consumer organization in the United States – and the food industry have all voiced resounding support for an updated food safety system. Here's why.
According to government estimates, eating contaminated food causes hundreds of thousands of Americans to be hospitalized and thousands to die each year. In addition to the physical discomfort – or worse – for victims and their families, foodborne illness takes a financial toll: between medical expenses and lost productivity, consumption of contaminated food costs our society as much as $350 billion each year, according to one expert analysis.
The FDA is responsible for inspecting – and ensuring the safety of – a significant portion of the food that is produced in the United States and imported from other countries. Antiquated laws, paltry budgets and limited authority, compounded by the challenges of an increasingly global food production system, have impaired the agency's ability to conduct frequent inspections and prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. As the recent outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to contaminated spinach, peanut butter, and cookie dough underscore, contamination in one food processing plant impacts consumers and manufacturers across the country, causing illness, death, and millions of dollars in losses from recalls, interrupted production, and plummeting sales of stigmatized foods.
In July, the House overwhelmingly passed H.R. 2749, its version of FDA food safety reform, which would increase the regulatory powers of the FDA, require food from other countries to meet the same safety standards as food produced in the United States, establish a national food tracing system, and require all food processing facilities to implement food safety plans.
The Senate bill, S. 510, contains many of the key provisions in the House bill, although it lacks the strength of that legislation when it comes to conducting more frequent, risk-based inspections; requiring facilities to have minimum testing frequencies and to report all positive results to FDA; and increasing FDA oversight of imported foods. Nonetheless, S. 510 would give FDA the authorities it needs to create a food safety system focused on preventing foodborne illness, rather than on simply responding to outbreaks as they occur.
On November 18, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions unanimously approved this bipartisan piece of legislation. Now, the National Consumers League, its fellow members of the Make Our Food Safe coalition and industry groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are calling for the Senate to bring the bill to the floor for a vote before the end of the year.
Indeed, the Senate has a great incentive to pass FDA reform legislation soon – improving food safety may be the only consumer health measure on which Republicans and Democrats will agree before Christmas. Consumers want – and have a right – to know that the food they purchase, eat, and feed to their families is safe, and, by passing food safety legislation before the end of 2009, Congress will give all Americans a gift they won't want to return.
Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
National Consumers League
The opinions here are the author's alone and do not represent the official policy for the entire Make Our Food Safe coalition.