Make this the last Thanksgiving before food safety reform

Christopher was one of the 171 people hospitalized with Salmonella poisoning during the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) outbreak. Nine people would die out of 714 reported ill in 46 states, making it one of the worst outbreaks of the decade.

While foodborne disease can strike anyone, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. Among the PCA’s victims, 21 percent were children younger than five. For all foodborne illnesses, the highest rate of hospitalizations occurs in adults aged 50 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The PCA outbreak demonstrated much that is wrong with our current food-safety system. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had not inspected the Blakely, Georgia, plant in eight years. Once the outbreak was traced to the company, FDA had to invoke the Bioterrorism Act to gain access to records of positive test results for Salmonella. One company caught in the recall of thousands of peanut products refused FDA’s request that it recall its products—proof positive that the voluntary recall system isn't always effective.

Government oversight of the food system is a vital consumer protection. The reality is few people live close to where their food is produced, and imports make up 13 percent of the average American’s diet. Food produced in this country can have ingredients from many different suppliers and travel thousands of miles before reaching a grocery store shelf.

Market-based solutions don’t work either. The Economic Research Service at USDA found that the market isn't effective in ensuring food safety in part because the legal system helps only a small proportion of those injured. Fewer than one-third of food poisoning lawsuits that go to a jury result in awards, and the average award is less than $26,000.

FDA oversees about 80 percent of the food industry. Its role to ensure food companies are playing by the rules and producing safe food is vital for American families like the Meuniers. But, as the PCA and numerous other recent outbreaks demonstrate, the 70-year-old food-safety law FDA operates under is inadequate to do the job of protecting public health.

In the closing days of the lame-duck session, Congress has a chance to fix our broken food-safety system. On Nov. 29, the Senate will take up S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. As its name suggests, the bill brings FDA into the 21st century—replacing its outdated authority, designed around reacting after people get sick, with a program that focuses on preventing foodborne disease outbreaks.

PREVENTION FIRST: Under S. 510 food manufacturers will have to implement preventive food-safety plans, and FDA will conduct more frequent risk-based inspections. The food-safety plans and their monitoring records will be available to inspectors, giving FDA more than a snapshot of conditions in the plant on a single day. Additional authority to access records is also available during emergencies.

Imported food will be safer because importers are required to verify the food complies with our food-safety standards, and FDA can demand certification of compliance for high-risk foods.

FASTER RESPONSE TOOLS: Important new authority includes a mandatory recall and greater ability to detain potentially contaminated food until FDA can determine if it is safe to ship.

STANDARDS AT THE SOURCE: FDA will also set produce-safety standards and provide guidance to farmers on how to ensure the fruits and vegetables they supply to their customers are safe from agricultural pathogens.

These are critically needed reforms that will protect the public from diseases that cause millions of illnesses, send 325,000 people to the hospital and cause 5,000 premature deaths each year.

Families, like the Meuniers, should not have to wait through one more Thanksgiving dinner uncertain about the government's ability to oversee the safety of the food they will eat. The Senate needs to pass S. 510, and the House of Representatives needs to complete passage, so this critically needed reform reaches the president’s desk before the lame-duck session ends.

Caroline Smith DeWaal is the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.