The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) just signed into Law by the President gives broad authority to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to implement policies of the nation’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
"Each year, foodborne illness strikes 48 million Americans, hospitalizing a hundred thousand and killing thousands," Commissioner Margaret Hamburg stated yesterday. " The burden foodborne illness places on the American people is too great…" Commissioner Hamburg is correct and has revised downward previously estimated figures by former FDA economist Robert Scharff, currently an assistant professor at Ohio State University, as published in USA Today (Elizabeth Wiese), March 4, 2010. Dr. Scharff placed the cost at approximately $152 billion a year, or "an average cost of $1,850 each time someone gets sick from food. Statistics also published in a Bloomberg Businessweek article, (Steven Reinberg) March 3, 2010, estimated "Costs related to campylobacter exceed $18.8 billion annually; costs linked to salmonella are estimated at $14.6 billion; and costs related to listeria are $8.8 billion…" to the American public.
Despite the varying economic estimates of the cost of foodborne illnesses, FSMA, as passed last March 2010, has good goals and aims to increase protection of the American food supply and its consumer, to establish minimum food safety production and inspection standards. FSMA will give more teeth to the FDA vis à vis inspection of food grown, processed and produced in this country, as well as to inspection of food products imported into the United States.
Dr. John Marcy, formerly with Virginia Tech’s Department of Food Science and Technology and now with the Center for Excellence in Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas, points out that the FDA has always had seizure authority in the case of the identification of contaminated or defective food products. There are those who say, however, that food safety is too important to leave it to the government. According to Dr. Marcy, "Foodborne illness is also an issue of safe food handling" and the burden of FSMA’s implementation, as well as its cost, lies in the hands of the American consumer, the food product worker and user, as well as the producer, processor and importer. He believes we should bear in mind that some foodborne illnesses (such as viruses) can be spread person-to-person as well as pathogen-to-food product-to-person.
The emphasis of FSMA, however, is toward prevention and to reducing the risks of foodborne illnesses to American consumers. The bill not only empowers HHS to strengthen the FDA and give Food Safety Regulations stronger compliance enforcement standards, it authorizes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to enhance foodborne illness surveillance systems to improve the collection, analysis, reporting, and usefulness of data on foodborne illnesses. It aims to avoid not only the prevalence of foodborne illness in America, but to reduce the costs of major recalls when contaminated food products permeate the marketplace. (One wonders, what about in the case when the government may not be correct in its claim. Will they indemnify the producers/processors in the case of an erroneous claim or seizure?)
If fully funded to the tune of $1.4 billion, FSMA will authorize the Secretary, HHS:
- To be able to inspect records related to food processing, production, inspection and growth;
- To order a recall of an article of food;
- To be able to issue guidance documents to reduce the risk from the most significant foodborne contaminants and pathogens, such as salmonella (in the case of eggs or other foods) or, for example, listeria (in fish), and establish minimum standards for the safe production of fruits and vegetables based on known safety risks (e.g., the presence of contaminants, such as herbicides, pesticides used in controlling fruit and vegetable-producing plant diseases or even presence of industrial contamination);
- To assess and collect fees—to fine erring food-producing companies–related to food safety re-inspection, initiate food recalls, and enhances the voluntary qualified importer program. Its authorization of importer re-inspection is aimed at protecting American consumers from products produced and grown in countries other than in America. FSMA also authorizes development of voluntary food allergy and anaphylaxis management guidelines for schools and early childhood education programs—a small but tremendously important advance for food consumers who suffer with allergies.
FSMA essentially puts food growers, processors, manufacturers and importers on notice they cannot ignore the mandates of the Food Safety and Inspection Service—there may always be bad actors, but now they can be fined–and compliance with food production and food safety regulations is not negotiable in order to help prevent contaminated foods landing in the marketplace. Yet it should be kept in mind that food safety is also a burden on the American public, those who work with, prepare and consume food products, and the public needs to be knowledgeable of food safe handling cautions and regulations also in order to reduce the causes of foodborne illness.
Producing food in America has never been an inexpensive proposition. Consumers should know there may be increased costs to industry to comply with food safety and environmental regulations, as well as the costs of energy used in food production and processing, which are factored into food prices, as well as the costs of transporting food products to the marketplace. And students of economics will be reminded that scarcity—remember the food crisis of 2009—and demand greatly factor into food prices to the consumer.
FSMA places producers and processors, as well as importers, on notice that meeting food safety requirements and complying with food safety regulations is mandatory. Food safety may continue to cost producers and processors more, especially in the case of food safety non-compliance. Raising the bar of food production excellence and the safety of food available to the American public may cost the American consumer more. Yet a positive economic spin-off of FSMA may be the rise in popularity of American food brands in the global marketplace.
For certain, FSMA will put other countries on notice that dumping inferior or defective food products which do not meet America’s food safety standards will not be tolerated. Now that we in America have become consumers of many imported foods, the safety of imported foods is an important issue.
It will be of interest to every concerned consumer of food products in America to watch the array of results as implementation and regulation of the FSMA plays out. Defintely, FSMA will create a different, hopefully safer, landscape for American food consumers, a higher profile for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and at the same time reduce risks and costs of foodborne illness to the American public.