The terrible Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident have prompted some fears about food contamination. Among the worries: that sushi found in Japanese restaurants might be contaminated with radioactive fallout.
These concerns are similar to those raised after the BP oil spill. It's true that radioactivity from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors has escaped into the air and sea. What's not true is that the sushi you're eating here was likely caught in affected waters.
In any case, the Food and Drug Administration is taking extra precautions to exclude any contaminated products imported from Japan. All milk products, vegetables and fruits produced in the affected region will be refused entry unless proven free of contamination. Seafood also will be diverted for testing by FDA before it can enter our food supply.
As you are probably aware, there have recently been many food-borne illness outbreaks and recalls. Spinach contaminated with salmonella was the big scare of 2006, followed by peppers and tomatoes. Then, this year there was a massive salmonella outbreak in peanut products that sickened hundreds and caused at least nine deaths, leading to one of the largest product recalls in history. Just last month, Nestle Toll House cookie dough and 380,000 pounds of beef produced by JBS Swift Beef Co. were recalled due to E. coli. contamination. As a result, Americans are distrustful and fearful of the food industry.
Thankfully, the government has finally turned its attention to the issue and is trying to overhaul the nation's food safety system. The Obama administration said that it will toughen safety standards to try to limit contamination of eggs, poultry, tomatoes, lettuce and other foods and signed a bill to that effect. The administration also promised to strengthen enforcement to ensure that the food industry complies with the new law.
Food-Safety Working Group
As part of the new regulations, President Obama established a food-safety working group. The group's goals are to increase the safety of the most popular foods and enforce stricter rules for the production of eggs, poultry, beef, leafy greens, melons and tomatoes. The new standards are an effort to reduce instances of salmonella and E. coli contamination.
The group is headed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is also directing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help the food industry establish better tracing systems when an outbreak occurs, so the origin of a disease can be quickly found. It's also creating a new network so the many agencies that regulate food safety can communicate better with one another.
This new approach will shift the focus of food regulation from their currently reacting role to one of prevention by enacting preventative measures and guidelines. The federal government will establish a command system to respond to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and develop industry guidelines that will help the government track contaminated products.
For information on food borne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella, you can check the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.
The House approved a bill in July that recommends a proactive stance in preventing food contamination by stepping up inspections. It calls for inspections of high risk facilities every six months, or at least once a year. The hope is to dramatically lower food recalls. The final regulation won't come until the fall, when the Senate votes on the bill.
The Goals - Reducing Outbreaks
The FDA wants to reduce salmonella infections from raw eggs by 60% or 79,000 illnesses a year. Among other things, the regulation requires egg producers to test their facilities for salmonella and buy chicks only from farmers who monitor for the pathogen.
While many applaud the new measures, others call the legislation "far reaching." Initially, the bill did not pass in the House because farm state members argued the bill would be too invasive on farms and pushed colleagues to vote against it. The bill ended up passing in the House the following day, after Democrats changed the need for a two-thirds approval to a simple majority to pass.
While the bill passed, many Republicans still voted against it, saying it would be invasive to farmers and not do enough to improve food safety. Frank Lucas, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, led the charge against the legislation claiming that "the bill still goes too far in the direction of trying to produce food from a bureaucrat's chair in Washington D.C."
In addition, details for many of the initiatives remain unclear. That leaves food company executives struggling to calculate the cost of compliance. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for example, hasn't signaled to industry executives how much it wants to reduce salmonella in chicken and turkey. Nor has the USDA told meatpacking officials what to expect as it increases sampling for E. coli. In addition, imported foods will also be affected by the new measures, which may be difficult to regulate.
New FDA Authority
The House also voted to empower the FDA to order recalls. Currently, the FDA simply recommends that a company voluntarily remove its products. For years, food safety advocates have been lobbying Congress to give the FDA more regulatory power over the food supply, a vast and growing network crossing state lines and international borders. This new bill will provide these protections.
While this bill has some drawbacks, hopefully it will improve the food safety in America with minimal intrusion to farmers and food producers. You should be happy to know that the food you eat is now scrutinized more than ever.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Will changes in the laws regulating food safety change the liability of food producers and sellers when outbreaks or contamination happens and consumers become sick?
- Is it a defense in a lawsuit for damages caused by a food product that the item was produced in compliance with food safety laws and regulations?
- Do changes in the law mean that consumers will have more and clearer information about their food, and will consumers be expected to heed that information when making choices about and using products? For example, storing, preparing and cooking food properly?