Regulations, Market up the Ante for Food Safety

If you subscribe to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) Recalls, Market Withdrawals and Safety Alerts, you’re well aware that food recalls occur almost daily. Few of these product issues receive nationwide publicity like this summer’s recall of 380 million infected eggs or last year’s Salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

But even small and localized recalls, such as mislabeled products containing dairy or nuts, have a large impact on consumers and manufacturers. The safety regulations a local supplier must follow are the same for national suppliers, whose product recalls become ingrained in the minds of American consumers. In fact, safety has become such a major issue for consumers that the FDA has supplemented its e-mail recall alerts with a mobile phone application that allows shoppers to download current recalls for any product.

Following this year’s midterm elections in November, politicians approved the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. The bill, if signed into law, would provide:

  • increased inspection of food manufacturing facilities, including annual inspections of high-risk facilities;
  • expanded FDA authority to order recalls; and
  • new standards similar to those set by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) systems.

There’s no question that the Food Safety & Modernization Act creates more stringent standards for food manufacturers, closer oversight of individual suppliers, and higher penalties. The Senate approved the bill November 30, and it will be sent to the House for action.

One thing the bill will not give anyone is a full-fledged commitment to tracking and tracing technology. The bill only calls for a pilot project to explore and evaluate methods to rapidly track and trace foods in order to identify the source of an outbreak and the recipients of the contaminated food. This pilot project includes methods that are applicable and appropriate for small businesses and technologies, including existing technologies that enhance trace-back and trace-forward. No later than 18 months following the end of the project, the Secretary of Health and Human Services is to report the results to Congress and must publish a notice of proposed rule making establishing standards for rapidly tracking and tracing a foodborne illness outbreak within three years of the bill’s enactment.

As technology professionals, my colleagues and I know that any technology viable today will most likely be obsolete in three years. And as consumers, we’re all concerned about potential future outbreaks that might occur in the three-year period prior to a notice of proposed standards, plus the additional time for the enactment of the proposal as law.

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