Challenges of modernizing hallmark food safety laws – National Consumers League

Earlier this week, we wished a happy 106th birthday to the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, both of which were signed into law on June 30, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. While commemorating the history of these laws is important, so is looking ahead and thinking about what the future holds for the important institutions created by these landmark pieces of legislation.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law on January 4, 2011 by President Obama, is an example of the positive ways in which legislation can be modernized. FSMA would transform the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from an agency which merely responds to foodborne illnesses to one which actively works to prevent them. Unfortunately, this law is facing two major challenges to its implementation.

The first challenge facing FSMA is the current budget climate. With vastly increased responsibilities, FDA needs a corresponding increase in funding. However, in an era of fiscal austerity, government agencies across the board face funding cuts. This means FDA must do more with less, leaving the agency to make tough decisions about priorities. The inevitable result of this process of prioritization is that some things will slip through the cracks.

The second challenge facing FDA is the job of actually implementing the new law, a task which requires the release of many new regulations according to a time table. Four of these important rules, dealing with preventative controls (for both human food and animal feed), the foreign supplier verification program and produce safety, were due to be released in January. As of the writing of this blog post, these essential rules are being held up at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House. Because these rules are integral to the implementation of FSMA, food safety advocates have been joined by the industry in urging OMB to release the rules immediately. Without these rules, FSMA enactment is essentially stalled.

While FSMA seeks to modernize the FDA by improving and expanding the government’s role in keeping food safe, a proposed rule recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) entitled “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection,” would roll back the government’s role in keeping our food safe. If the proposed rule was enacted, some inspection duties, traditionally performed by trained government inspectors, would be transferred to plant employees who are under no training requirement. Additionally, the new program would decrease the number of federal inspectors on the line while simultaneously increasing allowable line speeds to 175 birds per minute. The practical result is that while inspectors had been examining one bird every three seconds, they would now be inspecting three birds every second. This increase in line speeds is a concern not only for food safety but also for workers. Both consumer and labor organization have called for USDA to back away from its proposal.

Today the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act face challenges of modernization. Modernization must be accompanied by sound science and must above all be free from political considerations. Modernization will require the teamwork of all the stakeholders involved. Consumers especially must let their elected officials know that these laws, the agencies they created and the continuation of the protections they provide are essential aspects of any modernization scheme.