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Food Safety: More good supervision, as long as it does not go too far

6 August 2009 1,314 views No Comment

Legislation to improve food-safety rules has cleared the House and is on its way to the Senate. With recent high-profile incidents including the 2006 distribution of E. coli-contaminated spinach and the more recent salmonella traced to pistachios, giving the government greater powers in terms of food inspections and recall of tainted foods seems appropriate.

However, there are aspects of the legislation that require further scrutiny and need to be addressed when the Senate takes up the measure this fall.

First, here’s what the Food Safety Enhancement Act offers in hopes of restoring confidence in our nation’s food supply:

Under the new legislation, the FDA would gain greater authority to recall a product after consumers become sick or die. Currently, the federal agency can only coax a food-production facility to recall a product.

For facilities that are deemed high-risk in terms of food contamination, the FDA would be required to make inspections every six to 12 months. These types of plants include those with a history of food-safety problems or those that handle food products that spoil easily.

Lower-risk processing plants would be inspected at least once every three years. Right now, some facilities may go a decade or longer before undergoing a federal inspection.

The bill would require an annual fee of $500 from food-processing plants to pay for the added inspections, with a cap of $175,000 for companies with multiple plants. The fees, though, would cover only 40 percent of the cost for these added inspections.

Also required in the legislation would be new, elaborate safety programs developed by processing plants to solve food-safety problems before they occur and a new system to be created by the FDA to trace food products and ingredients.

New authority for the FDA is good news, not only for consumers but for food producers, too. We do not want to see another scare like the one that devastated the tomato industry last year when tomatoes were blamed for a salmonella outbreak that actually had been caused by tainted peppers.

What worries us about this legislation are the proposed, but not yet defined, regulations governing how produce is grown and harvested. These rules, which the FDA would formulate over the next three years, would focus on pathogens and how they enter the food supply.

However, since a majority of Yakima Valley’s food products, namely tree fruits, are grown far off the ground, problems associated with ground-borne pathogens are not much of an issue. As for potatoes being grown in the region, most of the crop is processed, eliminating the possibility of food-borne illness.

Also, the legislation allows the FDA to make quarantines of wide geographic areas whenever a foodborne outbreak occurs. As witnessed by the tomato scare, mistakes are made and an unwarranted quarantine could have devastating effects upon growers and processors. The quarantine provision is necessary, but its expansive reach should be limited.

As for food-safety inspections, fruit packers in Central Washington already face numerous audits imposed by large retail chains both here and abroad. If the proposed federal inspection requirements would help reduce these audits by retail chains, that would be welcome. Currently, fruit packers face as many as five audits annually.

While the legislation passed by the House considerably strengthens the safety of our nation’s food supply, the Senate still needs to modify the measure so its regulations don’t overreach and cause more hassle than good.

                                                                                                             By :Yakima Herald

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