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Food-safety rules face biggest change in years

By Martha Lynn Craver

Article from The Orlando Sentinel

Consumer safety officers of the FDA's Office of Regulatory Affairs' in Baltimore, inspect spices at the port of Baltimore. (AP photo)

WASHINGTON — A sea change in food-safety regulation is on the way. By the end of the year, Congress will pass legislation that brings the first major overhaul of the nation's food-safety laws in more than 70 years. The action was prompted by a series of foodborne-disease outbreaks as well as tainted imports from China, which laid bare the gaps in U.S. food-safety laws.

There is broad consensus on the need for such reform and surprising agreement on how it should be done. Consumers, industry groups, scientists, President Barack Obama and members of both parties in Congress are all on board. Industry groups recognize the need to increase consumer confidence in the food supply and to avoid costly recalls. The recent salmonella outbreak alone cost the peanut industry more than $1 billion.

A bill recently cleared by the House Energy and Commerce Committee will likely be voted on by the full House before the August recess. On the Senate side, legislation introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., will be the basis for the Senate's version, where work will begin in the fall.

The focus will be on prevention rather than reacting to problems after they occur. All food facilities will be required to implement preventive systems so they regularly conduct hazard analyses, assess potential food-safety risks and develop plans to keep the food supply safe.

The Food and Drug Administration will get more authority to require manufacturers to meet strong, enforceable performance standards to ensure food safety. The agency will be empowered to make recalls mandatory and to have access to company records. There also will be penalties to punish those guilty of wrongdoing.

Much more frequent inspections are a certainty, with high-risk facilities facing checkups more frequently than others. The House committee version of the bill would require FDA to inspect the riskiest facilities at least once per year. Now inspections are conducted just once a decade.

A food tracking system will be established so that public-health officials can trace tainted food back to the source and easily determine the causes of foodborne-disease outbreaks. All facilities along the food-supply chain will be affected: manufacturers, processors, packers, transporters, grocery stores, restaurants, etc. Farmers who sell directly to consumers are exempted from this requirement.

Imports will be more closely scrutinized. Companies will have to verify that foreign supplies are safe. There may be tougher certifications for high-risk products such as seafood and dairy. And there will be a bigger FDA presence abroad for more on-site inspections in more countries.

New fees will help to pay for FDA's new responsibilities. Annual registration fees from food facilities will be instituted, probably $500 per facility, with a $175,000 cap per company. There might be additional costs for reinspections and for certificates to export.


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