Better recipe for safer food supply

Billings Gazette

Last week, President Barack Obama signed into law the biggest overhaul of U.S. food safety regulations in 70 years. The law was written to deal with sweeping changes in Americans' food supply system, in which large farms and food companies distribute their products nationwide. Much of the food on America's dinner tables is grown overseas, and the new law will improve inspections of those imports.

Here in Montana, an exemption to the new law drew the most interest and the loudest applause. Small growers and other Montana food producers successfully lobbied Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to amend the long-debated Food Safety Modernization Act to exempt small, local food producers from federal regulation.

“The food safety bill ended up being a big win, not a one-size-fits all program,” Tester said during a visit to Billings this week.

Thanks to Tester's amendment, the new law strikes a good balance between protecting Americans' health and avoiding overburdening small businesses with government regulation.

Nationwide outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have become common. Hundreds of people have been sickened by food that came from a single source. Some have died from consuming food contaminated with pathogens such as e. coli. Finding the source of tainted food has proved problematic and too time consuming. Meanwhile, more people get sick and whole industries have suffered because of one producer's tainted product. Remember when spinach was discarded nationwide until the contamination was traced to one producer? Green onions were off limits till the Mexican supplier was identified.

The new food safety law beefs up the government's ability to trace contamination to the source. For the first time, the law allows the federal government to mandate recalls of contaminated food. Previously, recalls have had to be voluntary.

The tougher food safety law drew praise from the National Restaurant Association and the National Farmers Union.

“This legislation will strengthen the safety of our nation's food supply, give FDA much needed resources to effectively monitor and regulate it, and increase consumer confidence in the food they eat,” said Richard Wolford, chairman, president and CEO of Del Monte Foods.

The law is primarily focused on preventing contamination of food and preventing any contaminated food from entering the U.S. food supply. The new law directs the FDA to focus its limited inspection resources on the biggest safety risks and empowers it to require food companies to take steps to prevent food contamination.

“It shifts the paradigm,” Bill Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner told The Christian Science Monitor. The law creates “a new system in which government and food processors work together to keep contamination from ever occurring in the first place.”

In food safety, being proactive is crucial. Americans expect that the food they purchase is safe and wholesome, but consumers and even local groceries and restaurants have little ability to check on distant suppliers. This is a good argument for eating local foods as much as possible. But because most of our food isn't locally produced, Americans need a government watchdog with effective authority to help assure a safe food supply. That's what the Food Safety Modernization Act does.