Big Changes in Food Safety

Big changes in food safety regulations and monitoring for 2013
Ellen Ireland

Food safety has an uneven history of regulations and guidelines in the modern era. Like many other public health laws, food safety regulations are usually reactive, coming after an incident serious enough to elicit public outcry. There are two major types of food crimes that are regulated: one is when food is adulterated in a non-hazardous way, undermining consumer confidence; the other is when food is either intentionally adulterated or accidentally contaminated with a health-threatening compound.

Historically it takes a motivated individual to apply the science to explore any new problems or outbreaks. Intentional adulteration is economically motivated and needs to always stay one step ahead of the science of deduction. One major scandal was the adulteration of milk used in Chinese baby formula with melamine in 2008. In order to tell if milk is watered down, it is tested for nitrogen levels (protein is nitrogen rich). Unfortunately, melamine is also rich in nitrogen, and can fool the protein test. While no melamine-contaminated baby formula was found in the United States, it certainly increased awareness of the potential hazards faced by a food system where ingredients can come from all over the world—and well outside the realm of the FDA’s or USDA’s production inspectional jurisdiction.In 2011 the Obama administration passed a new food safety bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act. This is the first new, comprehensive food safety regulation bill since the 1930’s.

On the FDA webpage, Margaret Hamburg (Comissioner of the FDA) states:

“Two of my highest priorities as FDA commissioner have been strengthening the scientific foundation of FDA’s regulatory decisions and ensuring the safety of an increasingly complex and global food supply. That’s why I take such pride in FDA’s proposal of two rules that set science-based standards for the prevention of foodborne illnesses. One will govern facilities that produce food, and the other concerns the safety of produce.”

This is particularly interesting in light of the December 2012 shut-down of the MDP (Microbiological Data Program) lab system. This lab system, strangely part of the department of agriculture’s Marketing Service division, was the only place where food products were routinely screened for biological contamination. The CDC also tests for microbes, but only after a report of an outbreak.

The implication is that the new food safety laws will provide scientific prevention strategies for both domestic and imported foods, at the production and processing levels. I laud them for trying to move from reactive to preventative methods, which have worked well for many public health programs. However, I must admit that I feel some trepidation about the ability of the FDA to implement this new plan in a timely fashion. It will require establishing a whole suite of scientific detection and monitoring techniques, and then training the enforcement body in how to apply them. It is also interesting to note that in this whole huge document only a very few sections actually apply directly to science-based prevention methods in large scale food production. Below are the titles of the first six sections of the Food Safety Modernization Act (Public Law 111-353 111th Congress)

Sec. 101. Inspections of records.
Sec. 102. Registration of food facilities.
Sec. 103. Hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls.
Sec. 104. Performance standards.
Sec. 105. Standards for produce safety.
Sec. 106. Protection against intentional adulteration.

In January of 2013, the first specifics started to come out relating to the hazard analysis and risk-based preventative controls. It looks like the FDA is going to have to form strong partnerships with local and state public health services in order to have the man power to perform their inspections. Of course, with the budget issues still up in the air, it is difficult to tell how well the new food safety regulations can be enforced or if adequate training and manpower will be available. Importers, for instance, will have to rely on third party inspectors to certify production and quality. It will be interesting to see what kind of action can be taken if there is a failure in a third party based international system.
A major issue of concern for people interested in food security and local production is the way regulations relate to scale. The FSMA does try to accommodate small producers, but in some very strange ways. Some producers are exempt from examination if their produce is typically cooked before being eaten, for example. My personal hope is that the FDA will show some flexibility and discretion in creating new precedents for enforcing regulations relating to small scale niche farmers.

Links to related web sites:

Food and Drug Administration, Food Safety Modernization Act page:

Food Safety News, January 2013

For a look at the history of food adulteration and early regulations, I recommend
Bee Wilson’s Swindled: The dark history of food fraud, from poisoned candy to counterfeit coffee (Princeton University Press 2008)

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