Every year, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick and 3,000 die from food they eat. To combat this, Democratic President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, the most significant reform in more than 70 years. While the act passed with support from both parties in Congress and the food industry, Republican President Donald Trump is no fan of government regulation. Food safety advocates worry that the bill, which won’t be fully implemented until 2022, could be defanged through budget cuts.
The Food Safety Modernization Act set new standards for growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables, inspections for domestic and foreign food production and mandatory recalls. Because the changes required so many new products and procedures — from plastic storage pallets to hand-washing stations for pickers — the government gave small businesses years to comply. The law also shifted policing of U.S. food from 15 different federal agencies to the Food and Drug Administration, is now monitoring more than 80 percent of the supply, and the Department of Agriculture, which handles most of the rest. The U.S. hardly has the most insecure food supply. After numerous scandals in China — including the death of six children from baby formula laced with the industrial chemical melamine — the government rewrote its food safety law in 2015 to include larger fines, reparations to victims and jail time for knowingly adding inedible substances to food.
Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book “The Jungle,” which detailed the filthy conditions of Chicago’s meat-packing industry, spurred the U.S. Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act that same year. It was supplanted by the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which added regulations for food packaging and labeling and authorized factory inspections. For decades, the Department of Agriculture monitored meat, poultry and processed eggs, while the FDA covered produce, juice, dairy products, eggs in the shell and manufactured food such as cereals and candy — a system that was often confusing. Congress passed the safety act after a series of food contaminations killed at least nine people and sickened more than 700 in 2008 and 2009. What followed was delay, not action. The FDA missed a July 2012 congressional deadline for rolling out the new regulations, inflaming activists who suspected an election-year dodge. Two advocacy groups filed suit to compel completion of the rules; in 2014, the agency agreed to a new court-ordered schedule for releasing them all by May 31, 2016.
Small farmers, who still have years to meet the new requirements, say they’ll have a hard time paying for the extensive record-keeping, new harvest bins and portable toilets for pickers. States say there may not be enough government agents to check their work. Even as the original rules were being finalized, the FDA and state agriculture officials complained that Obama and Congress hadn’t provided enough money to pay for all the new inspections and measures. While Trump’s first budget proposal called for a 6 percent cut in spending on food safety for the year that will end Sept. 30, 2018, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee approved a budget with a slight increase in spending. The act’s user fees, first put forward in Obama’s 2017 budget to help pay for food inspections, aren’t popular with the industry; the American Bakers Association, for example, has estimated they could cost the average bakery $186,000 per year. And producers are asking the government to reconsider some new requirements, like for water testing, that are more difficult and expensive than the current safety systems in use. But big food sellers are making safety improvements on their own. The discount warehouse store Costco Wholesale Corp., for example, now conducts random testing of high-risk food products such as cantaloupe; Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is experimenting with blockchain to keep track of exactly where its products come from. Skeptics say that all these efforts might only put a small dent in the number of people sickened each year since the Food Safety Modernization Act doesn’t regulate how food is handled once it arrives at restaurants and other food service sites. Those places are the primary sources of norovirus outbreaks, which cause more than half of all foodborne illness in the U.S.
The Reference Shelf
- FDA information page on the Food Safety Modernization Act.
- Politico article on why the act took so long to be implemented.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts’ food safety studies.
- The government’s bulletin on food Recalls, Outbreaks & Emergencies and a timeline of food safety measures.
- The World Health Organization’s food safety homepage.
- Farming entrepreneurs in China are starting to meet the demand for untainted produce.
Andrew Zajac contributed to the original version of this article.
First published Feb. 3, 2014
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