When salmonella-laced peanut products sickened hundreds during a recent scare, President Barack Obama said consumers should be able to have confidence that their government will keep peanut butter-eating children safe — and that included his daughter Sasha.
"That's what Sasha eats for lunch probably three times a week," Obama said then. "And you know, I don't want to have to worry about whether she's going to get sick as a consequence to having her lunch."
On Jan. 4, Obama is getting a chance to allay people's fears about the safety of their food. He is set to sign a $1.4 billion overhaul of the food safety system, giving Washington new power to increase inspections at food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted products.
Congress passed the bill at the end of last year to respond to several serious outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning in peanuts, eggs and produce in the past few years. The law will be the first major overhaul of the U.S. food safety system since the 1930s.
"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," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters Monday during a conference call.
The measure gives the Food and Drug Administration substantial new authority, but the money to carry out the legislation is not guaranteed. Some conservative lawmakers have expressed concern about the five-year cost at a time when cutting federal spending is the Washington mantra in a tight budget environment. Supporters say they intend to push Congress for the full funding.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who hopes to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that "our food supply is 99.999 percent safe." Kingston cited recent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people — or one in six Americans — are sickened each year by foodborne illnesses. Of that, 180,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die annually.
Kingston said that, in a country of more than 308 million people, the figures show the FDA is already doing a "very decent job on food safety already." He questioned giving the agency more money.
"I think we'll look very carefully at the funding before we support $1.4 billion," he told The Associated Press in an interview Monday, speaking of Republicans who will control the House when Congress comes back into session Wednesday.
Erik Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs at the Pew Health Group, argued that the health care costs associated with an outbreak of foodborne illness alone run into the tens of billions of dollars — far beyond the cost of putting the new law into place.
"This will save a great deal of money, both for consumers and for the industry," Olson told reporters on the conference call arranged by the administration.
The new law will require larger farms and food manufacturers to prepare detailed food safety plans and tell the FDA how they are striving to keep their food safe at different stages of production.
It also emphasizes prevention to help stop outbreaks before they happen. The recent salmonella and E. coli outbreaks exposed the FDA's lack of resources and authority as it struggled to trace and contain the contaminated products.
The agency rarely inspects most food facilities and farms, visiting some about once a decade and others not at all.
Soon after taking office in 2009, Obama promised to make food safety overhaul a priority. At the time, a widespread outbreak of salmonella in peanuts dominated headlines. At least nine people died as a result and hundreds more were sickened.
The bill had broad bipartisan backing in Congress, but it was criticized by advocates of buying locally sourced food and small-farm operators who said the new requirements could force some of them into bankruptcy. Senators eventually agreed to exempt some of those operations from the costly food safety plans required of bigger companies, but that move upset food safety advocates and larger growers.
Those exemptions are in the legislation Obama is signing.
Many major food companies also support the bill, recognizing that safe food is good for business.
The new law would:
- Allow the FDA to order a recall of tainted food. Currently it can only negotiate with businesses for voluntary recalls.
- Require the agency to develop new safety regulations for producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables.
- Increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities; the riskiest domestic facilities would be inspected every three years.
- Require farms and processors to keep records to help the government trace recalled foods.
The new law would not extend to meat, poultry or processed eggs. Those foods are regulated by the Agriculture Department and are subjected to more rigorous inspections and oversight than foods regulated by the FDA.