Food Poisoning: Why You Won't Have to Worry About It (As Much)

Food Poisoning: Why You Won't Have to Worry About It (As Much)
Workers check nectarines in the packing facility of a fruit company in Parlier, California
Photograph by Chip Chipman/Bloomberg

Afraid the spinach in your salad is contaminated with E. coli? You should have less cause for worry — soon.

A little over two years ago members of Congress did something that now seems practically unfathomable: They came together and passed a piece of legislation mandating changes that were long overdue. That bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, became law in 2011. Then, as so often happens in Washington, politics and bureaucratic inertia appear to have gotten in the way of it being implemented. At last, the administration published a proposed set of regulations—1,200 pages in all—today.

The proposed rules establish protocols for fresh produce and processed food. They set hygiene standards for equipment used with fruits and vegetables; require that water be purified before being used to wash produce, and set up sanitation procedures for farm workers. Companies that make processed food have to tell the government about their “kill steps,” during which they try to zap away potentially harmful bacteria.

You might think these steps sound like no-brainers. That’s in part because the last time the nation’s food-safety laws were updated was the 1930s—long before the industrialization of agriculture and food processing.

Since then the country has stomached one deadly foodborne-illness outbreak after another as federal regulators, with few resources at their disposal, desperately tried to trace contamination back to its source. As I recounted in 2011, officials must go from supplier to supplier, asking questions about how the food was washed, what equipment it touched, and which fertilizers were used. Since companies weren’t required to keep detailed records, regulators often got bad leads or turned up short—meaning outbreaks continued to spread. The Pew Health Group, which studies food safety, estimates that 3,000 deaths and 128,000 hospitalizations occur every year as a result of food contamination.

Companies have had little direction from the federal government when it comes to preventing illness, says Erik Olson, the Pew Health Group’s director of food programs. Even washing produce before sale, he says, hasn’t been required by law. That’s about to change. The difference between the rules now being proposed and the old ones, Olson says, is “profound.”

There’s no question it took a long time for Washington to get these regulations in front of the public. And they’re still not final. Industry groups and advocates have another four months to weigh in before the rules will be finalized. But the good news is that major industry trade groups support what the administration has put forth. So the proposals aren’t likely to be watered down.

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