- In 2011, President Obama signed into law the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping reform of the food safety system in more than 70 years.
- The law included seven major regulations that needed to be finalized. As of May 26, with the passage of the Intentional Adulteration Final Rule, all parts of the law are now finalized.
- In the past, the food industry was only required to react to outbreaks of food poisoning. One in six Americans gets sick from food every year, and health officials have traced terrible and deadly outbreaks of food poisoning to everything from caramel apples to peanuts and cheese in recent months.
- The new regulations shift the industry into prevention mode, forcing manufacturers to take measures that stop outbreaks before they happen.
The new regulations are designed to make food safer to eat
Here's a quick run down of different parts of the Act and how they're going to make the food supply safer.
The Intentional Adulteration Rule, finalized May 26, requires both domestic and foreign food facilities — for the first time — to "complete and maintain a written food defense plan that assesses their potential vulnerabilities to deliberate contamination where the intent is to cause wide-scale public health harm," the FDA said in a statement.
So food facilities, here and abroad, will now have to show evidence that they're aware of contamination risks to their products, and that they're taking steps to mitigate them.
The "produce safety" rule, meanwhile, establishes enforceable and science-based safety standards related to how farmers grow, harvest, pack, and hold produce. These standards cover everything from requirements for "water quality, employee health and hygiene, wild and domesticated animals, biological soil amendments of animal origin (such as compost and manure), and equipment, tools, and buildings," according to the FDA's announcement.
The "foreign supplier" rule requires food importers to verify that their products meet FDA standards through verification activities — such as auditing the food facilities of their suppliers and sampling and testing foods.
The FDA is also establishing an accreditation program for these third-party auditors, so that they can learn how to conduct food safety audits of foreign food facilities.
The Preventive Controls for Human Food and Preventive Controls for Animal Food — known as the "preventive controls rules" — are meant to force human- and animal-food facilities to take stock of any hazards that could contaminate their products and cause sickness, and then develop and implement transparent plans that minimize those risks.
The two preventive rules were based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, a system designed by NASA to make sure astronauts don't get sick in space.
"To my knowledge, no astronaut has ever gotten sick from food poisoning," Marion Nestle, a New York University professor who wrote the seminal tome on the politics of nutrition (appropriately named Food Politics) explained. "So the idea was that applying this to food manufacturing plants will cut down food poisoning by an enormous percentage."
One in six Americans gets sick from food
Improving oversight of food safety is hugely important, considering 48 million people (one in six Americans) get sick from the food they eat every year. Of those, about 128,000 wind up in hospitals, and 3,000 die.
The idea behind the new rules is pretty simple: Companies need to take a look at their production facilities and identify any hazards that could arise to eventually sicken people or pets. "This law makes the companies liable if they don't comply," Nestle said. "It gives the FDA some teeth, which they've never had before."
This could mean anything from implementing measures to kill bacteria that are known to grow in cheese to ensuring equipment is handled in a way that prevents allergens — like peanuts — from contaminating food.
The companies also need to write up their detailed food poisoning prevention plans and submit them to the FDA. The FDA can check in on the food manufacturers to see whether they're following protocol and having an impact, boosting accountability and giving the regulator a new view into what manufacturers are doing to keep food safe.
There are a few places where the law falls short
The law doesn't cover meat and poultry — that's the US Department of Agriculture's jurisdiction. The good news is the USDA has been following these kinds of prevention plans for years. But the bad news is that while the USDA has inspection capacity, said Nestle, "the FDA doesn't have enough money to carry out its responsibilities."
The law also leaves it up to the food companies to devise their own plans, albeit with oversight. But of course, they could design a bad plan.
Still, Nestle added, it's a big step toward a safer food supply, especially considering many facilities already follow these protocols. "Consumers should expect safer food," she said.