Is It Time for the Next Major Food Safety Overhaul?

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Joel Chappelle, a food safety professional in our firm, for his continued research and contributions to our food safety columns. Joel has worked with us for many years, assisting food companies throughout the nation.

Our national food safety system traces its origins to the beginning of the 20th century, when there was virtually no oversight of our food production.

In response to a growing movement questioning the quality and safety of meat products, Congress enacted the Wholesome Meat Act in 1967, and the USDA hired and deployed federal inspectors to slaughter plants throughout the nation. The federal inspector’s job was to ensure through visual inspection that our food was being produced under sanitary conditions. Today, these inspectors remain in every federally inspected meat and poultry establishment in the country. While their mission has not changed significantly, the environment in which they accomplish it has.

Scientific and technological advances over the past century have revolutionized our understanding of pathogens and the causes of foodborne illness. Microbiologists, physicians, veterinarians, farmers, government regulators, and engineers have all worked together to develop the most effective food safety apparatus yet. The results have been largely responsible for a substantial decline in the number of foodborne illnesses in recent years.

In spite of the improvements, increased scrutiny has been placed on the food industry by the public, the media, and politicians, many of whom argue that even a single foodborne illness is entirely unacceptable and that more must be done regardless of the difficulties involved in detecting and preventing the presence of microscopic organisms.

The government answered these calls, in part, with the recent passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The act, which legislates the largest expansion of the FDA’s food safety authority since the 1930s, has been hailed as the most comprehensive piece of food safety legislation ever enacted. It seeks to radically transform the regulatory landscape for thousands of American and international food companies through the implementation of new requirements and a broad inspection apparatus ostensibly designed to ensure the safety of American food.

Unfortunately, the new legislation is, at least for now, effectively stalled. Many foresaw the difficulties in implementing the FDA’s wide-reaching reforms and, almost immediately upon passage of the law, began asking where the FDA would acquire the resources necessary to implement its dramatic reforms.

Government will still play a critical role in the design and implementation of an overhauled food safety system. But, it may be time to come to terms with the reality that pragmatism and science, rather than bureaucrats and legislation, make food safer.

At a recent conference hosted by the International Association for Food Protection in Providence, R.I., participants were told by an FDA spokesperson that many of the FSMA regulations had not yet been finalized. In addition to budgetary shortfalls, substantial trade difficulties are rumored to have arisen over requirements placed on foreign establishments. He further explained that, despite the lack of progress, everything under the new FSMA remains in a “deliberative phase.” What that means remains to be seen.

What is clear is that concerns over another international economic collapse, spiraling national debt (which has already resulted in, among other things, the U.S. losing its AAA credit-rating), and the realization that government spending must be reined in immediately have resulted in what amounts to the possible economic infeasibility of the FSMA in its current form.

Critics have long argued that the government’s tendency to throw money, rather than solutions, at difficult problems would result only in a bureaucratic colossus. That now seems to be the case. The Government Accountability Office, for instance, recently identified as many as 15 separate federal agencies collectively administering at least 30 laws related to food safety.

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