Congress shouldn't weaken food safety laws

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2013 - 7:17 PM

Preventing outbreaks is good policy. Some in Congress disagree.

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This 2009 photo is of skids of peanut butter crackers waiting to be destroyed because of salmonella.

Photo: Michelle Pemberton, Associated Press

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Being a Minnesotan, Jeff Almer searched for a polite term to describe how he feels about a congressional push to roll back the new food safety laws his family fought for when his elderly mother died after eating ­salmonella-laced peanut butter in late 2008.

Almer, of Savage, initially settled on “ticked.’’ But his rising anger at what’s happening in Washington — where some Republican lawmakers are targeting the Food Safety Modernization Act as burdensome for business — quickly got the best of his Minnesota Nice, and he let loose with a “mad as hell.”

Why are these politicians looking only at industry compliance cost concerns and not at the total cost to society of unsafe production practices, he wanted to know? In addition to families like his who have lost a loved one, there are people who are permanently disabled from foodborne diseases.

Ultimately, Almer said, medical care costs and the lawsuits spawned by outbreaks get passed along to everyone through higher insurance premiums. The cost of producing safe food “is the price you have to pay to be in this business,’’ he said. “There are pros and cons to everything we do. But we can’t keep the status quo, and that’s what these politicians are trying to do.’’

The 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act, which strengthened oversight of the produce and other foods overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — was an overdue overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws, some of which had not been updated since the Great Depression. That it is now under attack nearly three years after it passed Congress with broad, bipartisan support is an outrage.

It isn’t just Almer and the families of the estimated 3,000 Americans who die each year from foodborne diseases who ought to be angry about the new push by Rep. Dan Benishek of Michigan as well as Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch to cripple the law’s reforms.

Everyone eats. And everyone deserves a food safety system whose laws are geared toward how we get our groceries in the modern age — from large-scale growers, processors and supermarkets, and increasingly from overseas producers of fruits, vegetables and seafood.

Up to 15 percent of the food eaten in the United States each year is imported, according to Sandra Eskin of the Pew Charitable Trusts. That only about 2 percent of this food undergoes border inspections by the FDA is one of the safety gaps that the new law aims to fix.

The law has moved far too slowly through the process that turns laws into practical rules and regulations after Congress passes legislation. But when it is fully implemented, it will boost imported food’s safety, increase food facility inspections and improve authorities’ ability to trace contaminated food through today’s long supply chains, ensuring that it’s pulled off the shelf before it sickens people.

Since the law’s 2010 passage, high-profile outbreaks often linked to produce have lent urgency to these reforms. A recent Hepatitis A outbreak linked to a Townsend Farms organic frozen berry mix that sickened 122 people in eight states has underscored the need to improve the safety of imported food. An Oregon company made the product with ingredients from Chile, Turkey and Argentina.

Benishek and the two senators, who appear to be responding to some industry concerns about water testing, have introduced legislation to defund some of the law’s new produce protections. Benishek, a physician, also successfully attached an amendment to the U.S. House farm bill that would have significantly delayed the entire law’s rollout by requiring additional scientific and economic analysis of its impact. While the House farm bill failed, food safety advocates are concerned that this measure could surface again in appropriations deliberations.

The reality is that much of the analysis that Benishek, who declined an interview request, calls for has been done. Criticism by him and the two senators about bureaucrats piling on red tape is also disingenuous.

The new regulations simply come from federal agencies carrying out the regular work of implementing a law passed by Congress. The law also exempts small producers from key requirements, further undermining other inaccurate criticism that this law will drive mom-and-pop operations out of business.

There will certainly be snags and places for improvement as this sweeping new law rolls out. Lawmakers and industry should work with the FDA to make necessary changes during implementation — not try to gut the law and return to an antiquated, inadequate system.

“My mom died from those laws,’’ Almer said. “Now somebody wants to go back to the beginning and start again? It’s very frustrating.’’

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A Star Tribune editorial. Follow the editorial board on Twitter | FacebookPinterest | Google+

  • Foodborne diseases


    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 48 million Americans — about one in six — become ill each year from foodborne diseases. About 128,000 people are hospitalized annually, with a death toll of about 3,000.

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