Q&A talks about food safety with Debra M. Strauss, associate professor of business law at Fairfield University.
Q: President Obama signed into law Jan. 4 a plan that will overhaul the nation's food safety laws for the first time since the Great Depression. What's prompting the action now?
A: This action has been prompted by recent incidents involving contamination, particularly in eggs, peanuts, and produce. According to the newest figures from the Centers for Disease Control, "each year roughly one out of six Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from food-borne diseases." With bipartisan support from both houses of Congress and the President, this new law represents a mandate that food safety is at this moment becoming a priority.
Q: The law gives the United States government far-reaching authority to establish food safety standards for farmers and food processors, and gives the FDA the authority to recall food. Has the government not had powers like this before or were they vested in different agencies?
A: No, amazingly enough these powers were not possessed by the FDA or any other governmental agencies before this legislation. The FDA has the responsibility for overseeing 80 percent of the nation's food supply, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) handling meat and poultry, products not covered by the new law. This legislation will strengthen food law by enlarging powers of the FDA to inspect plants and order recalls, powers and abilities it does not currently have. The FDA has in the past had to rely on food companies to voluntarily remove their products from stores. By granting the agency resources and authority to stop outbreaks before they begin, this shifts the government's policy from reactive to proactive.
Q: One of the components of the law will allow the FDA to require importers to certify the safety of their foods before entering the U.S. food supply. Why is this just now becoming required, especially in terms of a decade-long emphasis on homeland security?
A: This is a great question. The Department of Homeland Security played an active role in this piece of the law. According to the USDA, imported food comprises 15 percent of the U.S. food supply by value and is on the rise at $76 billion, a 12 percent increase over last year and twice the figure from 1998. Today approximately 80 percent of seafood and one-third of fruits and nuts come from abroad, as do numerous ingredients that are component of U.S. products. China is the third-largest food importer after Canada and Mexico; despite the high- profile problem of the industrial chemical melamine in imports from China, most of the publicized incidents thus far have involved problems with domestic producers. This law grants the FDA more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.
Ironically in the area of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food, which are not addressed by this law, the laws overseas are more stringent than those of the United States. In fact, the U.S. has had more difficulty getting its food products accepted into overseas markets because U.S. agricultural products are largely viewed as "contaminated" with GMOs as we fail to label, monitor, or even segregate these crops. Instead of adopting the stricter international standards, the U.S. has been pushing to open foreign markets to our products through filing trade actions with the World Trade Organization.
Q: There's a component of the law that exempts FDA registration requirements for farms that market more than 50 percent of their product directly from the farm or from farm stands or farmer's markets. What does this say about food safety at farmer's markets?
A: The House version was more restrictive and did not contain these exclusions. However, that version prompted strong opposition from small farmers and local producers. In response to their fears for their livelihood from unreasonable costs and paperwork, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) added an amendment providing exemptions from the most burdensome obligations such as food safety plans for small farmers and food processors, as well as traceability and recordkeeping requirements for small farms if they sell directly to consumers or grocery stores.
Major fruit and vegetable producers along with some food safety advocates opposed these exemptions but ultimately gave way to allow the broader measures to secure passage. Moreover, the modifications purportedly include safety measures that are more "scale-appropriate," such as allowing on-farm processing and other flexible mechanisms through which small farms may comply with the preventative control plan and produce standards requirements, and providing a competitive grant program for food safety training with priority to small and mid-sized farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and small food processors.