IT'S been a year since President Obama named Dr. Margaret Hamburg as Food and Drug Administration commissioner and charged her with upgrading the nation's food safety laws for the 21st century.
Last summer, the U.S. House passed the first rewrite in 70 years, with legislation that gave the FDA vast new authority over how food is grown, harvested, and processed. Since then, though, the measure has languished in the Senate.
Two recent developments provide further evidence that the nation no longer can afford to ignore problems in its food supply chain.
A report by the Department of Health and Human Services found "significant weaknesses" in the FDA's domestic food inspections, a decline in the number of violations identified, and a lack of swift action to remedy those that were uncovered. Inspector General Daniel Levinson concluded that "more needs to be done to protect public health and to ensure that the FDA has the necessary tools to prevent outbreaks of food-borne illness."
An Ohio State University study demonstrates why the FDA must do a better job. Robert Scharff, a former FDA economist who now is an assistant professor of consumer sciences, said 76 million new cases of food-related illness occur each year, causing 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations. The price tag for all of that illness - including medical care, loss of productivity in the workplace, death, and disability - totals $152 billion. He calculated that $39 billion alone stemmed from problems with fresh, canned, or processed produce.
The bill would give the FDA the authority to order recalls and quarantines when it suspects contamination. It also would require producers to identify risks their industries face and come up with prevention plans and controls. And it would put imported foods under the same scrutiny.
In addition to giving the FDA new enforcement powers over fines and penalties, the bill would require food producers and importers to pay a $500 fee to help cover costs of the improved inspection program. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the fee would not be sufficient to cover the increased enforcement costs, leaving a $2.2 billion shortage over five years. But given the high cost of food contamination, the country cannot afford to maintain the status quo.
The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee unanimously passed the measure, which is expected to come up for a Senate vote next month. When it does, members should vote to improve the safety of the food supply.