Legislation protects consumers without hurting businesses

These days it seems like we can’t go more than a couple of weeks without reading headlines of yet another food-borne illness outbreak. Most recently, it was salmonella linked to pepper-coated salami sold under various brand names and at major grocery stores across the country.  As of Feb. 15, 230 people were reported sick in 45 states. Perhaps the most frightening part of it all is that we still do not know if the contamination came from the meat or the pepper. These were not products from a small producer or sold in a mom-and-pop shop —this meat was processed and sold by major corporations, and we still do not have a way to trace the source of the contamination. 

On the whole, Americans enjoy safe and wholesome food. But our food can and must be safer. Recent food outbreaks linked to spinach, peppers, peanut products and cookie dough dramatize two important truths: First, our current regulatory system does not adequately protect Americans from serious, widespread food-borne illnesses.  Second, the dangers associated with food-borne outbreaks are profound.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses each year, including approximately 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States.

We cannot afford to ignore food safety. Unsafe food is yet another strain on our healthcare system.  And it is a problem that we must fix now. 

Congress took a step in the right direction last November when the HELP Committee reported S.510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. This bill represents broad, bipartisan agreement.  In fact, when it passed out of committee, it did so without a single vote against it. 

It is a forward-looking bill that comprehensively reforms our current food safety system yet is adaptable enough to keep pace with an evolving industry.  It recognizes that preventive controls are an essential means to improve food safety, and it addresses the need to enhance surveillance, improve emergency response coordination, and heighten the scrutiny of imported foods.  Importantly, it also recognizes that, while changes to our system must be real and effective, they must not be excessively burdensome to farmers, producers and food processers.  We truly can protect consumers while not hurting business. 

Over the last 100 years, our meals have gotten more complex:  They include more varied ingredients that are the subject of more diverse methods of processing and preparation. Today, raw agricultural products often travel thousands of miles from farms to factories to our dinner tables, and they are routinely processed and mixed along the way. In addition, we rely more and more on foods imported from abroad, often from countries with less rigorous regulation and different production standards than our own.

Yet, despite dramatic changes in our tastes — as well as in methods of production and distribution — our food safety laws have not been adequately modernized.  The U.S. regulatory system has failed to keep pace with the proliferation of food sources and processing methods.  It will probably come as a shock to most Americans that today, even though our nation has 150,000 food processors, the FDA visits just 7,000 domestic plants each year and even fewer of the foreign facilities that process food for shipment into the United States.

That is why our food safety bill is not only timely, it is long overdue. In our modern society, American families should not have to worry if the food on their table is safe. Enacting this legislation is an important step in the right direction. 

Harkin is the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.