Obama administration begins major overhaul of food safety rules

The Obama administration on Friday began the biggest overhaul of food safety rules in more than 70 years.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released two major regulations aimed at preventing contamination of the food supply. The long-delayed rules implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, a 2010 law that “[shifts] the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.”

“Preventing problems before they cause harm is not only common sense, it is the key to food safety in the 21st century,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

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The two rules proposed by the FDA would require food producers to develop and enact comprehensive plans to prevent contamination of their products. Those plans would be submitted to the FDA for approval and enforcement.

Food safety advocates had complained bitterly about missed deadlines for enacting the law. Many attributed the delay to election-year politics. 

“These proposed regulations are a sign of progress that should be welcomed by consumers and the food industry alike,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement.

“The new law should transform the FDA from an agency that tracks down outbreaks after the fact, to an agency focused on preventing food contamination in the first place.”

Lawmakers passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in response to a series of health crises linked to unsafe foods.

In the two years since the law passed, the United States has seen a long list of foodborne illness outbreaks, some deadly.

Outbreaks since Jan. 2011 have caused 40 deaths, 437 hospitalizations and more than 1,300 illnesses, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

The sicknesses were linked to a variety of foods tainted with bacteria, including spinach, cantaloupes, peanut butter and imported cheese.

Friday's rules overhaul food safety on the farm and in the production facility.

They will force growers to ensure the safety of fertilizer, irrigation water and water used in packing sheds, for example. Farm workers will be given better sanitation facilities, and equipment will have to be easy to clean.

On the processing side, food manufacturers will be required to create and test schemes for fighting contamination.

The public will have 120 days to comment before the new rules go into effect.

The FDA said Friday that it will release three more food rules soon. At least one could relate to imported foods.

The agency oversees more than 166,000 food production facilities that account for about 80 percent of the food that is consumed in the United States.