Comprehensive Food Safety Reform Moves Forward In Congress

The House Energy and Commerce Committee just approved comprehensive food safety reform, setting it up for consideration on the House floor in the coming months. The Food Safety Enhancement Act was approved by voice vote, indicating bipartisan support and suggesting a relatively smooth passage through the entire House.

Among other things, the bill will require food facilities to create and implement hazard plans to anticipate the most likely contaminants and food safety issues that could arise, increase inspection frequency overall and base frequency on high-risk facilities, implement better traceability to respond to outbreaks, give the FDA authority to order recalls of food and impose civil penalties on producers, and fund the FDA, in part, by requiring registration fees from producers.

Importantly, the version of the bill that was sent out of committee includes language on bisphenol-A that will protect infants, young children, pregnant women, and adults by directing the FDA to assess the effects of exposure to BPA in food and beverage containers and determining any approved uses. If the FDA determines that a currently approved use for BPA is unsafe, it will take action to revoke its approval and notify the public.

Food Safety Overhaul Approved by House Panel [CQ]
(Photo: cyanocorax)

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  1. HIV 2 Elway says:

    Haven’t food prices risen enough lately?

    • lemonchar says:

      @HIV 2 Elway: Haven’t enough people gotten sick and died from an unsafe food supply lately?

      • HIV 2 Elway says:

        @lemonchar: Doubt it. 3 dead from spinach salmonella. 5 deaths tied to tainted peanut butter. We all pay more because an insignificant fraction of the population gets sick. So much for not raising taxes on the middle class.

        [consumerist.com]

        [www.msnbc.msn.com]

        • lemonchar says:

          @HIV 2 Elway: I read 9 died from the peanut butter salmonella–not to mention everyone who got sick but didn’t die. New outbreaks come up in the news every few weeks, everything from processed peanut butter to cantaloupes. Sorry, but it’s unacceptable in a country like this to have such a shoddy food safety system. And guess what? I’d gladly pay more in taxes if it would mean I didn’t have to worry about food like I lived in China or something.

          • HIV 2 Elway says:

            @lemonchar: 9 people out of 300 some million customers is beyond statistically insignificant. Any manufacturer would pray for that kind of quality control.

            I’d gladly pay more in taxes if it would mean I didn’t have to worry about food

            Remember that next time we see a grocery shrink ray article.

            • Kogenta says:

              @HIV 2 Elway: If I made a product where no one “died” from it, but had 200 million people on the floor puking their guts out because of what was in it, would that mean I had stellar quality control? Cause you know, 0 out of 300 some million customers is statistically insignificant.

              Can’t just count the dead when you look at safety.

              • HIV 2 Elway says:

                @Kogenta: Stats that support your claim that 200M were sick?

                @johnva: I agree we have too many fatties, I live in the midwest, I know. Its still a huge stretch to use that as a selling point for gouging already stretched Americans further. And if anyone thinks producers won’t pass the added costs on to consumers, they’re nuts.

                • johnva says:

                  @HIV 2 Elway: We’re not being “gouged” currently. Food is very cheap in America, partially thanks to government ag subsidies (which I oppose). Have you ever eaten a restaurant meal in most other countries? American portion sizes are fricking enormous, and could use some downsizing. So my point is that people wouldn’t necessarily have to pay more for food; they could just eat less of it.

                  Like I said, I don’t think this would directly get rid of obesity. I just think that your argument that food prices are already too high is invalid.

                • Kogenta says:

                  @HIV 2 Elway: I didn’t claim anything, I said IF, not there were. I have no stats to quote, but I’d be AMAZED if there were only 5 some deaths and 0 people sick due to the peanut butter incident.

                  I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been so much news if there were only 5 some isolated deaths and no other related injuries or illnesses reported or connected to the production of peanut corp.

            • ExtraCelestial says:

              @HIV 2 Elway: So that’s your test for safety? If it doesn’t kill you it’s good to go?

              I hope you will not and/or are not in ANY position of power any time soon.

              • HIV 2 Elway says:

                @TinkishDelight: Use statistics, not emotion to manage things. Statistically our food is insanely safe.

                • ExtraCelestial says:

                  @HIV 2 Elway: What you posted were statistics for DEATH. Yeah, we’re a first world country. No, it’s not like we’re choosing life or death every time we bite into a cheeseburger, but no one at the QC lab is checking a lone box for “did not die” as a sole method (or any method) of testing. Quality determination is a bit more elaborate, eh?

                • johnva says:

                  @HIV 2 Elway: Not really. See the post above yours. Lots of people get sick and die every year. And even so, so what? Should we stop trying to make say, air travel safer because it’s already quite safe statistically? Like we’ve been over, food is already incredibly cheap in this country. It’s not like people are going to starve because we add some regulations to make the food supply safer. There may be other reasons to oppose this regulation (I don’t know all the details of it, so I can’t comment on any specific unintended side effects) but its effect on food prices is not a very good argument against it. That would be like saying that we shouldn’t make airlines pay for safety upgrades because tickets are already too expensive at $10/flight.

                  • HIV 2 Elway says:

                    @johnva: Your comparison is flawed though, to everyone food is a necessity, while air travel is not. Food may be cheap but if that cost increases further (we’ve seen plenty of bitching about that in the last year) families will have to cut costs elsewhere.

                    According to Alex’s stats, we are outside what I would consider acceptable control limits and something should be changed. I now question if this is the best option or not…

        • Alex Chasick says:

          @HIV 2 Elway: From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

          How many cases of foodborne disease are there in the United States?

          An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur each year in the United States. The great majority of these cases are mild and cause symptoms for only a day or two. Some cases are more serious, and CDC estimates that there are 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths related to foodborne diseases each year.

          • HIV 2 Elway says:

            @Alex Chasick: There we go. According to those numbers something needs to be done. 325,000 serious cases over approximately 900M meals (300M American’s eating 3 squares a day) give us a 0.036% chance of getting ill after any given meal. May seem like nothing but it doesn’t jive with the six sigma stylings.

            Still, I’m doubtful that the improvements we see via this legislation will justify the costs associated.

            • johnva says:

              @HIV 2 Elway: I don’t think the chances per meal is really so relevant. What would be more meaningful is the chances of getting sick in a given year, etc. I suspect that would look worse than the stats you mention.

              @HIV 2 Elway: I don’t think air travel is a necessity like food is; it was just a simple analogy. But the point I was making earlier is that it’s not necessarily true that families will just spend more on food if food costs rise. They may also respond by eating fewer calories, which they could easily do since most of us are eating too much already. Restaurants might cut down on portion sizes rather than raise prices, etc. People will adjust. Especially since the cost increase would likely be quite small (although I don’t know how much it would actually cost to implement these measures).

              • HIV 2 Elway says:

                @johnva: No, you have to look at the number of failures over the total number of occurrences that failure can occur. There have to other stat nerds around here who can shine some light on this. I work in manufacturing and thats how we handle our control limits.

                • johnva says:

                  @HIV 2 Elway: They’re both valid stats. That wasn’t what I was saying.

                  I’m speaking of how we can demonstrate the problem to people who aren’t convinced it’s an issue.

          • HiPwr says:

            @Alex Chasick: What percentage of these foodborne diseases were a result of poor food handling practices in resturants and in home kitchens? How does this legislation address that?

      • MooseOfReason says:

        @lemonchar: You mean like the tainted spinach that had the FDA’s approval?

        Hmm…

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @HIV 2 Elway: Yeah, sorry, food safety is also a national security issue. I’m going to go with a safe food system. If you want, though, just have them divert some of the funding from the Pentagon to food safety, since it IS a security issue. Price problem fixed.

    • johnva says:

      @HIV 2 Elway: No, they haven’t risen enough. Americans still pay way too little for food, and it shows in our waistlines.

      We’ve got to start valuing food for what it is, and demanding good food, instead of just looking for the cheapest deep-fried potato chip option.

      We pay less for food, as a percentage of income, than almost any civilization in history. It’s not going to kill us to pay a bit more for it and spend a bit less on other things.

      • lemonchar says:

        @johnva: Such a good point. And about the grocery shrink ray: GOOD. I don’t need to eat a pound of Pringles anyway.

        Cheap food is cheap for a reason, and we pay for it otherwise in lots of ways. All of them horrible.

      • HIV 2 Elway says:

        @johnva: That’s your argument in support of this crap? That we’re too fat so we need to raise food prices? You’re better off trying to convince people that their food is unsafe when statistically there is nothing to worry about.

        • johnva says:

          @HIV 2 Elway: That wasn’t the whole of my argument, if you reread it. But it’s part. I don’t think obesity is directly caused by overly cheap food prices. I think obesity is related to our sick food culture in this country, and that overly cheap food is being produced because that’s what our sick culture demands. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing between obesity and cheap food.

          Americans’ real problem is overeating of calories, coupled with sedentary lifestyles, coupled with a culture that makes the cheap route buying too many unhealthy categories.

    • giggitygoo says:

      @HIV 2 Elway:

      I think the real question is whether this reform ends up accomplishing the stated goal without being an excessive burden on food companies and acting as a barrier to entry for small companies. If it can be done at minimal cost then it may be worth it. Unfortunately, the government’s track record is certainly pretty bad here, (read: FDA) so I can’t blame HIV2Elway’s skepticism here. Also, I can’t help but point out the irony of posters always favoring taking funding away from defense using a medium that was developed as a defense project. (ARPAnet)

  2. farcedude says:

    I’m wondering if/how this will affect small farms/producers. Anybody know? (yes, I read the article, and no, I don’t have time to read the legislation).

  3. SarcasticDwarf says:

    You know, it would be nice if Consumerist would start linking to the actual bills instead of assuming that all the readers are only interested in an often misleading summary.

    • Alex Chasick says:

      @SarcasticDwarf: I usually include a THOMAS link, or at least the bill number, so readers can look things up themselves. But when I say in the post that they “just” approved it, I meant it: there’s no THOMAS link yet to what came out of today’s markup.

      If you visit the E&C committee page you can see the materials from today.

      • SarcasticDwarf says:

        @Alex Chasick: Alex, I know that I (and probably others) would appreciate the best link available.

        • johnva says:

          @SarcasticDwarf: Seconded on this. This isn’t just a problem here, though; I’m often frustrated by the fact that the media just expects us to take their word for things when primary sources are readily available and linkable. If you’re going to write about something that relies on factual sources, I’d like to see the facts myself, instead of someone’s (who may or may not be very informed) filtered interpretation. I have no idea why the media doesn’t link to sources a lot more densely, but they need to get with the program. It’s particularly a problem with political and science coverage.

          Consumerist is actually better about this than most, though there’s room for improvement.

          • Alex Chasick says:

            @johnva:
            @SarcasticDwarf: Thanks for the feedback. Like I said, I usually include the THOMAS link, but if that’s unavailable I’ll try to track down an alternate source in the future. It’s nice to see readers wanting to read the actual legislation.

  4. sean98125 says:

    Don’t forget about the economic costs to the manufacturers, distributors and retailers that are hit with declining sales and recalls due to tainted food.

    It isn’t just about how many people die. There are very widespread economic costs if tainted food hits the market, and focusing just on the deaths is pretty misleading.

    • HIV 2 Elway says:

      @sean98125: But the economic incentives to produce safe food are already there. The peanut industry took a huge hit both to their image and their bottom line, all in the absence of more senseless regulation.

  5. I Love New Jersey says:

    No doubt that this will increase the cost of food.

  6. unpolloloco says:

    @HIV 2 Elway: this really isn’t raising taxes significantly on the middle class – food costs as a percentage of income are not all that significant for the middle class. This hurts the lower class the most, where food is a sizeable percentage of income

  7. veronykah says:

    Silly me, when I saw that headline I thought maybe it had to do with huge industrialized factory farming.
    Well, I guess it does but as usual does nothing to address the root cause of the problem. Just tries to “fix” it after its already clearly broken.

  8. csdiego says:

    All this relies on the FDA’s willingness to say “boo” to the food industry. And given that they’ve declined for years to worry about BPA, why do we think they’ll change their answer now?

  9. sharkzfanz says:

    Although safety is great all of the reforms lately we need to be careful that the cost of good does not rise to high at one time.

  10. williamfranklinpearson says:

    This legislation threatens small food producers just like CPSIA shut down small toy manufacturers and retailers. The only food producers and distributors that will be able to afford the regulation are gigantic corporations that care nothing about providing Americans with sustenance.

  11. starrion says:

    Given the wild success that was CPSIA we might want this bill to not sail so smoothly through Congress.

    How will this affect small producers?

    Is the goal of the backers of the bill to run small producers out of the business?

    Who exactly is backing the bill?

  12. Unsolicited Advice says:

    @HIV 2 Elway:

    Six Sigma, logic, and risk analysis do not apply. Absolute safety is the end goal of policy.

    5000 people die every year from foodborne disease. 32 million people are on foodstamps. It’s an allocation problem, and this is where we miss the mark. Policymakers assume infinite resources, because policymakers aren’t very good problem-solvers.

    • HIV 2 Elway says:

      @Unsolicited Advice: Six Sigma, logic, and risk analysis always apply especially when absolute safety is the goal. How else do we measure the effectiveness of our initiatives or determine where to put our resources.

  13. Unsolicited Advice says:

    @HIV 2 Elway:

    No, like, I agree with you that this is a stupid waste of time. I was making the point that this isn’t being solved like a resource allocation problem. It’s being approached like a problem where absolute safety is the only acceptable outcome.

  14. Anonymous says:

    As someone who worked in congress when this bill was introduced this year (and read it), and a person with experience in food safety and testing, I can tell you this bill is a horrible idea. It basically expands the power of the FDA to cover all food manufacturing and production, potentially including agricultural production (already covered by the USDA). HACCP plans, identified in this post as “hazard” plans, are extremely expensive to implement for large producers, and involve cumbersome testing regimes that, while effective, do indeed raise the price of the product produced. Of course, this bill will have minimal impact on the huge companies already observing HACCP protocols, but the bill extends such requirements to small producers as well. The last version I saw provided a “grace period” for small/local producers to implement their plans, but rest assured, Uncle Sam will be watching your local bakery or family farm just like it watches Dole or Hormel.

    Imagine for a moment that you have a local artisanal cheese maker who distributes regionally – she’s never had any problems with quality or sickness, and through hard work and a little luck has a successful home business. Under the last version of this bill that I saw, within a few years, she would need to take bacteria samples at various points during her production process on a regular basis, and send them away to a government certified lab to be tested. Oh, and she would be responsible to pay for these tests, and the myriad of others that the FDA imposes on cheese-makers (of which I’m sure there are plenty). Say goodbye to your local food production!

    When are we going to get tired of the national government controlling our local lives?

  15. H3ion says:

    With the emphasis of consumer organizations to encourage purchasing produce from local producers, what effect will this bill have? I understood that small farms were exempt from regulation.

  16. EinhornIsAMan! says:

    @HiPwr: +1. Exactly. How much of that is the manufacturer/producer’s fault and how much is twits who forget to wash their lettuce or are too lazy to use a food thermometer or store things properly? That statistic posted by Alex Chasick does nothing to support his argument.

    • johnva says:

      @TheDayIsMine: Yes, it does. Careful handling and cooking (which realistically, isn’t always going to happen) would be less of an imperative if the food supply wasn’t contaminated so often. Also, “washing your lettuce” isn’t going to kill all the germs on it. On foods eaten raw, such as lettuce, you’re kind of dependent on the food producer to not sell you contaminated product. Especially when it’s a product (such as bagged/boxed greens) that is sold specifically for the purpose of being pre-washed and not requiring a time-consuming wash step.

  17. vladthepaler says:

    “protect infants, young children, pregnant women, and adults”

    So, everyone except for nonpregnant teens and seniors will be safe fom BPA? Why don’t they just protect everybody?

  18. OmarMarr says:

    Please click here for more info on this horrible piece of legislation: http://foodfreedom.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/hr-2749-totalitarian-control-of-the-food-supply/

    This is an excuse for martial law, illegal searches & seizures and control over land masquerading as “food safety.” I’m surprised The Consumerist was so thrilled to see this passing through! Didn’t you guys *read* the bill?