FDA Gets New Tools to Fight Food-borne Illnesses

December 22, 2010

By Terry Smiljanich:

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that food-borne illnesses strike millions of Americans each year, killing more than 3,000. Amidst all the clamor for “less government,” few of us want the federal government to slacken in its role of policing the food industry for our protection. Well, most of us at least.

The CDC examined statistics from around the country and has found that each year one in six Americans (about 48 million people) get sick from food contamination, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food-borne illnesses. Thirty-one pathogens are known to cause such illnesses, but many causes are still unidentified. The main killers are salmonella, toxoplasmosis, campylobacteriosis, norovirus, and listeria.

Many such illnesses and deaths are caused by poor preparation of food by consumers, but more safety precautions by food producers and better inspections by the government can greatly reduce the risks of such food sicknesses.

Now Congress has given the Food and Drug Administration new tools to help in this fight. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 is the largest reform in food safety legislation since the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The legislation, expected to be signed quickly by President Obama, gives the FDA new powers:

  • The FDA can now require recalls of tainted food, rather than just politely asking food producers at fault to do so;
  • The list of food producers required to have hazard prevention plans in place has been expanded to more than 80% of all domestic producers (the USDA has authority to inspect poultry, egg and meat producers);
  • The FDA has been given more money to expand its inspection programs.

The new powers are expected to cost $1.4 billion over the next five years. The cost, however, of those 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths far exceed this price tag. The Consumers Union calls the new legislation “a big victory for consumers that finally brings food-safety laws into the 21st century.”

The best prevention for food-borne illnesses, however, remains home safety precautions, described by the CDC as:

  • Clean – wash your hands and foods carefully during preparation;
  • Separate – keep raw meat and poultry separate from utensils and plates used to serve food;
  • Cook – always bring cooked food up to recommended temperatures;
  • Chill – refrigerate leftovers promptly; and
  • Report – report suspected food illnesses to local health authorities.