Is the Food Safety Modernization Act Making Our Food Supply Safer?

people eatingWith much jubilation, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed by President Obama on January 4, 2011.  It was the largest, most significant overhaul of the U.S. food safety system in more than 70 years.  Since FSMA became law, announcements of food recalls have continued via the news media, so you may be wondering if FSMA is actually helping to keep our food supply safer.  Perhaps you've been contacted (as I have) by an advocacy group begging recipients to call the President and urge him to take action to get rules related to the law out of committee and working for the public good. I researched the causes of the delay and asked the scientists on the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board to comment on it and the current impact of the Act. Here's what I've learned.


What foods are affected by the FSMA?


The FSMA does not deal with meat and poultry products (and liquid eggs) since these are handled by the USDA.  This law affects the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), which is responsible for the safety of most of our food supply.  The new law gives the FDA greater powers as well as increasing responsibilities.  For example, the FDA can now initiate mandatory recalls rather than simply request that companies recall risky products.  Now, the FDA is required to inspect food processing facilities a certain number of times.  The law also makes importers responsible for the safety of edible products they import.  The law puts great emphasis on prevention of contamination rather than just responding to it.


Why is greater implementation of the FSMA important?


According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), every year about 48 million Americans (1 out of 6) develop a food-borne illness, and about 3,000 die from these diseases.  Moreover, these figures may be an underestimate since many such illnesses are underreported.  Contamination of produce and imported foods are a major source of pathogens such as salmonella, E.coli, and listeria.  According to a Reuters article published on the Huffington Post blog, the rules now being discussed would establish standards for these pathogens in these as well as other requirements for other areas of our food supply. 


What financial problems could slow down implementation?


Food process engineer (and Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board member) Dr. Timothy Bowser points this out: "The Congressional Budget Office's estimated cost of implementing the FSMA is $1.4 billion over 5 years (and I think that’s probably a low number). Congress gave the FDA only a $50 million increase this year to get started (1/28 of the total estimated need)."


In an article on the website Food Safety News, Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, also discusses the difficulty of getting the resources to fulfill the mandate of this law.  Concerns about this, he says, keep him up at night. "We see doing it with a combination of redeploying and making the best possible use of current resources but also working with Congress and our stakeholders to get additional resources and that's going to be an ongoing challenge, for sure."


Bowser expressed further thoughts about financing the law: "Will the FSMA work as promised, and is it cost-effective? If it won’t work, and it costs too much, then we need to move on to a better solution. If it can be demonstrated that it will do the job without breaking the bank (the evidence is not clear on this), then we should be supporting it as individuals, groups, and as a nation. I’m in favor of watching how the FSMA unfolds and moving ahead with the best of it and any improvements that can be made along the way."


Another problem regarding money: can the individual states afford to comply with the FSMA?  Part of the FDA's job is to provide oversight and verify that federal standards for supervising food safety are being met by the states.  The author of the Food Safety News asked this question of Taylor: "So how often do you run up against the fact that states are ....not adding inspectors or expanding their workforce to meet these growing demands?  They're pretty strapped for resources."


Taylor admitted that this is a big problem: "We are specifically mandated to leverage state resources.  We've got to figure this out.  How do we make the investment in states that strengthens the national food safety effort in an efficient way?"


To what extent is the problem simply a matter of committees needing more time to work out the specifics of implementation?


According to a widely distributed email (posted in May 2012) from the organization "Make Our Food Safe Coalition," most of the FSMA provisions had not gone into effect and were stuck in the rule-making process in the White House  Office of Management and Budget. Why?  Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein (a member of this site's Advisory Board) explains: "This is a complex issue. Congress passed a very sweeping bill with typical loose language. The whole process of translating Congressional law into workable regulations is harder than most people think, given that you still need to reflect the intent of Congress. Furthermore, the FDA does not have the best track record for being on time. It is a bit frustrating for those who want the pace to go faster, but it is typical of how these processes work."


Taylor's statements echo these sentiments when he says, "There are only so many economists, so many lawyers, so many [regulation writers], so we've had to do some prioritizing." 


The FDA is making progress on FSMA, but Taylor admitted in January that the agency would miss some statutory deadlines. For details about the 5 rules getting first priority, click here.  These include rules related to human food facilities, growing practices on farms, and foreign supplier verification. The agency, Taylor says, is taking these deadlines seriously and making every effort to meet them as soon as possible. 


Presently, is our food any safer than it was because of the FSMA and other efforts?


Dr. Bowser's response to this is reassuring: "It’s the law, and the food industry and interest groups are paying attention. The industry is changing and making improvements as a result of FSMA. Universities are developing educational materials, conducting workshops, and doing research studies. Associations are meeting to discuss impacts, voice their opinions, and provide support for their members."


Another reason to be cautiously optimistic about future implementation is a statement by Taylor that he expects further action on rulemaking in 2012.  


The website Park City Group,  which provides retailers and suppliers with information to help them remain in compliance with rapidly evolving regulations, offers the following encouraging assessment:  "It is clear that the food safety regulatory landscape is rapidly changing with more mandated regulations and stricter enforcement than every before.  Regulatory agencies are universally cracking down on unsafe food and fraudulent claims with vigor.  New or recently modified regulations include: Egg-Safety Rules, Safety Standards for Fresh Produce, Preventive Controls, and Guidance for Transportation of Food, Retail Food Code and Menu Labeling."  All that sounds like we're moving in the right direction.  But additional time and money are still needed to bring the vision of the FSMA into reality. 


On Shelf Life Advice, you'll find more information about the FSMA by clicking here. 


Source(s): "Q&A With Michael Taylor: Part I: Implementing FSMA "Food Safety Modernization Act Still Awaiting Obama's Approval"


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering "Food Safety"


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