The US House of Representatives passed a food safety Bill last Thursday by a vote of 283-142 that promises far-reaching reform of how food is processed and grown, intended to boost food safety and consumer confidence.

President Obama praised the Bill, saying: “This action represents a major step forward modernising our food safety system and protecting Americans from foodborne illness.”

Each year, 76 million Americans are sickened from consuming contaminated food and 5,000 of these people die. In just the last few years, there has been a string of food-borne illness outbreaks in foods consumed by millions of Americans each day – from spinach to peppers to peanuts, pistachios and cookie dough. This recent series of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses has demonstrated that they are not random, unpreventable occurrences, but are due to widespread problems with the current food safety system.

The Food Safety Enhancement Act gives new enforcement tools and funding to the FDA to better ensure food safety including more frequent inspection of food processing facilities, the development of a food trace-back system to pinpoint the source of food-borne illnesses, and enhanced powers to ensure that imported foods are safe. The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, allows the FDA to issue mandatory recalls of harmful products and enhance oversight of imported food.

American families have felt great urgency about the need to strengthen food safety standards. Congress has responded quickly with strong legislation that will protect lives and prevent illness.

President Obama said: “Those are the goals of the Food Safety Working Group I convened in March and charged with making recommendations to improve our food safety system. And that is why we announced a new rule to control Salmonella contamination in eggs and are working to reduce the presence of harmful pathogens such as E. coli in meat and produce; strengthen our capacity to trace the source of outbreaks; and update our emergency operations procedures.I commend the House of Representatives for its action today and look forward to working with the Senate to enact critical food safety legislation.”

Highlights of the Bill
The Bill includes several long-overdue repairs to the food safety system, in order to protect our children and families from contaminated food.

  • Up-to-date registry of all domestic and foreign food facilities selling to American consumers. The Bill requires all food facilities operating within the U.S. or importing food to the U.S. to register with FDA annually.
  •  Dedicated source of funding for enhanced FDA oversight of food safety. The Bill also requires all domestic and foreign food facilities selling to American consumers to pay an annual registration fee of $500 per facility. These annual fees will be used to defray the cost of the heightened inspection regime mandated by the Bill.
  •  Strong, enforceable performance standards. Under the Bill, the FDA will have clear authority to issue and require food facilities to meet strong, enforceable performance standards to ensure the safety of various types of food.
  •  More frequent inspection of food processing facilities. The Bill requires the FDA to inspect high-risk food processing facilities at least once every 6-12 months, inspect lower-risk facilities at least once every 18 months to 3 years; and warehouses at least once every 5 years. (The FDA currently inspects all facilities on average only about once every 10 years.)
  •  Food trace-back system. Under the Bill, the FDA will establish a food trace-back system, building upon and improving the voluntary food trace-back systems put in place by the produce industry, so that public health officials can more easily determine the source of food-borne illness outbreaks. The Bill directs FDA to issue trace-back regulations that enable it to identify the history of the food in as short a timeframe as practicable. Prior to issuing the regulations, FDA would be required to conduct a feasibility study. There are also exemptions for certain foods and facilities.
  • Ensuring imported foods are safe. The Bill directs FDA to require certain foreign foods to be certified as meeting all U.S. food safety requirements by third parties accredited by FDA. In addition, the Bill directs FDA to develop voluntary safety and security guidelines for imported foods. Importers meeting the guidelines would receive expedited processing.
  • Better access to records in order to prevent outbreaks. The Bill gives FDA access to the records of food producers and manufacturers during routine inspections. Under current law, FDA must wait for food-borne illnesses to occur before the agency can access records. In the recent case of contaminated peanuts, FDA was unable to access records that might have prevented the outbreak from occurring in the first place.
  •  Strong, flexible enforcement tools. The Bill strengthens penalties imposed on food facilities that fail to comply with safety requirements.
  •  Authority to order a food recall. The Bill gives FDA the authority to order a recall if a company fails to do so when requested.
  •  Country-of-origin labeling. The Bill requires all processed food labels to indicate the country in which final processing occurred. It also requires country-of-origin labeling for all produce.