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FDA Releases Rules To Strengthen Safety Of Food Supply

Jan 4, 2013
Originally published on April 7, 2014 3:10 pm

UPDATED: 4:50 p.m. Looking for a little weekend reading? The Food and Drug Administration has just the thing. On Friday, the agency released two proposed rules designed to boost the safety of the nation's food supply, encompassing hundreds of pages.

One rule covers operations at fruit and vegetable farms, focusing on those foods that we eat raw and have been the subject of several recent recalls, like leafy greens, tomatoes, melons, herbs, green onions and berries. They would require worker safety training, handwashing, clean water and monitoring the presence of animals in the field that could spread illness.

Produce accounted for about 42 percent of all foodborne illness in 2010, according to the FDA.

The other proposed rule would require food processors to develop and follow detailed plans for preventing contamination of their products.

"The rules go very directly to preventing the types of outbreaks we have seen," said Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, at a noon press conference.

The move comes after a series of high-profile recalls, including cantaloupes in 2011 that killed 33 people. A recall involving salmonella in peanut products this past September eventually led to the shutdown of a Sunland Inc. facility for nearly a month. The company makes peanut butter and other related items for several major national brands, including Trader Joe's. And there have been a string of E. coli-related recalls this year involving Canadian beef.

The rules were issued two years after president Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law, giving the Food and Drug Administration broader power to require food facilities to develop food safety plans and new authority to recall tainted food.

The United Fresh Produce Association welcomed the rules. David Gombas, the group's food safety expert, says that many big vegetable growers already are required by food retailers to follow similar safety procedures — but a single national standard would be a big improvement.

Safety advocates, for their part, are applauding the rules in general. Eric Olson, director of Food Programs for the Pew Charitable Trust, called them "the first major overhaul of our food safety controls since the Great Depression." Some, though, are concerned that the FDA is not asking vegetable producers to carry out extensive — and expensive — testing of their products to detect harmful bacteria.

Congress exempted the smallest farms — those that sell less than $500,000 of produce each year and deliver most of it to local consumers — from these regulations. But many small farmers are still worried that they will, in fact, have to follow the new rules, raising their costs.

Back when the bill was signed, consumer groups, many food manufacturers and public health advocates were hopeful that the Obama administration would move swiftly to put new rules in place to prevent foodborne illnesses.

But the regulations reportedly sat at the government's regulatory review office for months. This prompted two nonprofits, the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health, to file a lawsuit against the agency, alleging "unreasonably delayed regulations." FDA recently asked a federal court to dismiss the suit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 48 million Americans are sickened by tainted food, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The government took a big step today toward a new system for making sure that fresh fruit and vegetables are safe to eat. The Food and Drug Administration proposed new regulations that will cover many of the country's food processors and farmers who grow fresh produce. NPR's Dan Charles has that story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The federal government has never before laid out rules for how farmers should keep their fruit or vegetables free of dangerous bacteria. But those healthy foods can and do make people sick. Two years ago, cantaloupes that carried Listeria bacteria killed at least 33 people. Government scientists tracked the fruit to a farm in Colorado. But FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says public health officials shouldn't just react to disease outbreaks. It should try to prevent them, and they can.

DR. MARGARET HAMBURG: Modern preventive standards will reduce outbreaks, will reduce illness, and will benefit American families and our food industry as well.

CHARLES: Congress asked for these regulations two years ago when it passed a far-reaching food safety law. Writing them took longer than expected because it's a complicated problem. Disease-causing bacteria can get into a field of fresh vegetables in lots of ways: through compost that hasn't been properly treated, irrigation water from contaminated ponds, farm workers who haven't washed their hands or wild animals who leave their droppings in fields.

The FDA's proposed rules deal with all of that and more. They're hundreds of pages long. Now, people on all sides of the safety debate are going through every page. David Gombas, a food safety expert for the United Fresh Produce Association, an industry group, actually welcomed the new regulations.

DR. DAVID GOMBAS: We are glad to see them.

CHARLES: Big vegetable growers and retailers already have come up with their own safety rules. Many of those rules are similar to what the FDA now says it will require. Some industry rules are actually tougher. And Gombas says having one nationwide standard is better than lots of different, private rules.

GOMBAS: What we've been saying all along is we need federally mandated rules that everyone can look at and say, yes, these are the procedures and practices that must be in place to assure that produce is grown safely.

CHARLES: But Gombas does plan to complain about one thing. He'd like the FDA's rules to apply to all farms, large and small. The FDA's proposal does not apply to farms that sell less than half a million dollars worth of food each year and sell to consumers or stores nearby. Congress specifically exempted these farms from the regulations, saying that small farmers cannot afford to comply with them. Food safety advocates, meanwhile, like Erik Olson, director of Food Programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts, were happy that the FDA finally had released something.

ERIK OLSON: This is a big deal. We're talking about the first major overhaul of our food safety controls for FDA, really, since the Great Depression.

CHARLES: But some food safety advocates have argued the rules should require fresh food producers to conduct random tests of their vegetables for harmful bacteria. The FDA's draft rules do not require this. The agency says such tests don't usually catch instances of contamination. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are encouraged by sections of the FDA's document that say you can produce safe food without getting rid of wild animals. Jennifer Biringer from The Nature Conservancy's office in California says some of the strict food safety rules set up by private companies have pushed farmers to get rid of habitat for animals.

JENNIFER BIRINGER: Farmers are, for example, being asked to create almost antiseptic conditions in their farm fields by doing things like removing vegetation along riverbeds.

CHARLES: Everybody has 120 days to comment on the draft regulations and propose changes. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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