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Obama to Sign Bill to Improve U.S. Food Safety

TUESDAY, Jan. 4 (HealthDay News) -- President Barack Obama was expected to sign Tuesday sweeping new legislation that gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unprecedented powers to keep the nation's food supply safe.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, first passed by the Senate and then the House of Representatives last month, represents the first significant strengthening of the nation's food safety laws since the 1930s, and follows a string of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses stemming from tainted eggs, peanuts, spinach and other leafy greens.

"The Food Safety Modernization Act is the most significant food safety law of the last 100 years," Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said during a Monday afternoon press conference.

"It will bring our food safety system into the 21st century, improving health, saving lives and helping Americans feel confident that when they sit down at their dinner table they won't end up in the hospital," she said.

Added Food and Drug Commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg: "In passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, Congress has addressed a significant public health problem facing our nation today -- food-borne illness. This law puts necessary and renewed emphasis on prevention, and makes prevention the responsibility of every participant in the food supply chain -- from farm to table."

The overhaul gives the FDA authority to protect the food supply, rather than simply react to breakdowns in the supply chain, as the agency has done in the past. It will affect all whole and processed foods, with the exception of meat, poultry and eggs, according to the Associated Press.

Under the auspices of the $1.4 billion bill, the government will be able to inspect processing plants, order recalls and set stricter standards for imported foods. Larger farms and food manufacturers will have to prepare detailed food-safety plans and tell the FDA how they will be implemented at different stages of production.

The bill exempts small farmers and food processors, and growers who sell directly to the public at farm stands, because of concerns that smaller food suppliers can't afford the testing and record-keeping that the bill requires.

Other highlights of the bill:

  • The FDA must gradually implement more frequent inspections in the United States and overseas. Eventually, high-risk facilities will be inspected every three years.
  • The FDA will be able to order -- rather than simply request -- food recalls when it is evident that contaminated food poses a health hazard.
  • The law enables the agency to set national standards for growing and harvesting produce.

But the money to implement the new legislation isn't guaranteed. Some conservative lawmakers have said they're concerned about the cost at a time when cutting federal spending is becoming an increasing priority. Supporters of the new law, which has bipartisan backing, said they intend to push Congress for full funding, the AP reported.

Food-safety advocates hailed the move when the bill passed the House of Representatives last month.

"This win is a powerful testament to the people across the country who came to Washington to tell their lawmakers how contaminated food had killed their loved ones or left them horribly sick," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. "This win is for them and all Americans."

Commenting last month on House passage of the bill, Patty Lovera, assistant director for Food & Water Watch, said, "We look at it as an important first step."

Noting that implementation of important provisions will happen over the next several years and require increased funding for the FDA, Lovera said, "That's a whole other set of work we have to do."

As for the bill's effect on food safety, Lovera said that remains to be seen. "But it could have a significant impact," she said. "It's going to take a while to kick in, but it is important and overdue."

One in six Americans gets sick from tainted food every year, and about 3,000 die from those illnesses, according to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More information

For more on food safety, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: Jan. 3, 2011, news conference with Kathleen Sebelius, secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, Washington, D.C.; Dec. 23, 2010, news release, Consumers Union; Associated Press

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