Sadly, Minnesotans have become the face of some of the nation's highest-profile foodborne disease outbreaks in recent years.
The death of Shirley Mae Almer, a 72-year-old grandma from Perham, Minn., who became ill after eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter in late 2008, helped spark nationwide recalls of contaminated products. Last fall, the haunting picture of Stephanie Smith, a Cold Spring, Minn., woman paralyzed by an E. coli bacterial infection traced to a hamburger made by Cargill, illustrated a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times story questioning common meatpacking practices.
Each year, 325,000 Americans are hospitalized with foodborne illnesses, and 5,000 people die. And yet for decades, the main agencies charged with the nation's food safety -- the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- have been underresourced and hampered by archaic laws too often put in place back when most people still canned their own produce and bought meat from a local butcher. In the age of supermarkets, fast food and globally grown produce, updates to the nation's food safety laws are sorely needed. The stakes are especially high in Minnesota, one of the nation's leading states for food processing.
Fortunately, Congress is finally making these reforms a high priority. Over the next few weeks, the Food Safety Modernization Act is poised to become the next major item on the U.S. Senate agenda. The act is a critical step toward making the U.S. food supply safer, with a focus on strengthening the FDA. Laws outlining this agency's authority are considered the most out-of-date. In addition, the agency has jurisdiction over a wide range of products that often are eaten uncooked, such as produce, increasing risk from contamination (meat, poultry and eggs are primarily USDA's domain).
The bill also has a welcome emphasis on prevention. By strengthening FDA resources, authority and inspections, its aim is to stop contaminated food from reaching the dinner table. Key components of the bill would:
•Require processors to have a plan that identifies and addresses potential contamination points.
•Require annual inspections for high-risk facilities and inspections every four years for low-risk facilities.
•Give the FDA the authority to order recalls of contaminated product (currently, it's done on a voluntary basis).
This is a strong bill that could be made even better with several minor changes. It should require producers to report testing results to the FDA, which would alert the agency to contamination. Backers of the bill also need to ensure it does enough to help mom-and-pop producers comply. Future reforms that would strengthen the USDA should also be a priority.
Passing a food safety bill is highly doable. Similar legislation has already passed the U.S. House. The Senate bill, introduced by Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, has a bipartisan array of backers: seven Republican cosponsors and seven Democratic cosponsors, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The bill also enjoys support from many consumer and industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Restaurant Association.
America's horse-and-buggy food safety laws must be brought into the modern era. The Senate shouldn't wait a moment longer. Durbin's bill outlines commonsense steps and merits swift passage.