Implementing Food Safety Law A Slow Process
Washington — Four years ago, President Obama signed into law sweeping changes designed to improve U.S. food safety and prevent outbreaks similar to the one involving Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell, in which three people have died after eating contaminated ice cream.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, the biggest food safety overhaul since 1938, came in response to a 46-state outbreak tied to salmonella at a Georgia peanut plant in 2008. Nine people died, and every year since, thousands have died from food-borne illnesses.
The new law is supposed to change that. It shifts the focus from merely reacting to deadly outbreaks to preventing them. That is, if it can ever get implemented.
It has taken four years, more than 75,000 public comments and a federal court order to enable the Food and Drug Administration to write the broad new rules that will govern how thousands of food manufacturers will ensure their food is safe to eat.
When the rules are finalized later this year, companies will have up to three years to comply, depending on their size. In almost all cases, it still leaves it up to companies to decide whether they need to test the food they make for bacteria before they put it on trucks and sell it.
“There is no one-size-fits-all system of preventive controls,” Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food safety, told The Dallas Morning News this month. “But also we don’t want to stymie innovation. We are trying to walk the line to keep the flexibility that folks need to put in place the right efficient, effective preventive control, but also create accountability for firms to do this the right way.”
A ‘Recall Situation’
Texas health officials first got word that there might be a problem with Blue Bell ice cream on Feb. 13 and a follow up test in April, showed a growing sample of listeria found directly in the plant’s ice cream. Blue Bell recalled all of its products. The CDC said 10 people have become ill from the ice cream since 2010 in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arizona. The FDA has said Blue Bell knew in 2013 that at least one of its plants had tested positive for listeria. But the company chose not to tell state or federal officials or test its ice cream.
“They just killed the listeria that they found in a small area,” said Mansour Samadpour, a former University of Washington microbiologist who is president and CEO of IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group. “They did not address the bigger question of why was it there, where did it come from?”
Companies often get bad advice and don’t bother to test food after listeria is found in their plants, he said. “If it’s in the plant,” he said, “it’s going to be in the food.”
“Several swab tests did show the presence of listeria on non-food surfaces in Blue Bell’s Broken Arrow plant in 2013,” spokesman Joe Robertson said in a written statement. “As is standard procedure for any such positive results, the company would immediately clean the surfaces and swab until the tests were negative.
No Safety Guarantee
Even if the new law did require product testing to verify that safety plans were working, it wouldn’t by itself guarantee safe food, experts said.
“It’s easy to look at this and just say, ‘Let’s test everything,’” said Sandy Eskin, director of food safety programs for the Pew Charitable Trust. “But then there is a real question of cost, and even of efficacy.”
Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner, said the lawmakers who passed the law did a good job reflecting those concerns, even though they believed, as does the Obama administration, that safety improvements also require broad new powers for the FDA.
“The vast majority of firms have every reason to do the right thing,” Taylor said. “But we have to have a regulatory system that facilitates that and when they aren’t doing the right thing, holds people accountable in a very timely way.”