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Top Food Safety Stories of 2010: No. 1

In our top 17 food safety stories of 2010, first place goes to the food safety bill, which was supported by an unusual alliance–including consumer advocates, grocery manufacturers and produce growers–and had bipartisan support in Congress, yet seemed to take forever to win approval:

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In the end, we are just going to remember that the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act passed in 2010.  And we will come to rely upon the basic protections it provides.

It’s true that there were enough twists and turns during the 111th Congress to leave food safety advocates with whiplash, but that’s why the legislative process is often compared to sausage making.  It’s just something you might not want to watch all that closely.

Although the House of Representatives and the Senate had both passed the food safety legislation, the Senate’s version was a revenue-raising bill and the U.S. Constitution says all revenue-raising bills must originate in the House.

In the end, it was H.R. 2751 that carried the food safety bill across the line, by unanimous consent in the Senate on Dec. 19 and by a 215-to-144 vote in the House on Dec. 21. It was delivered to President Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, on Dec. 29.

In the end, it was a legislative hat trick performed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that saved the measure.  Late on that Sunday night, he replaced the original language of H.R. 2751, which had been a “cash for clunkers” bill and used it as a “vehicle” for S. 510. 

Reid’s legislative maneuver was a stunning success, and fulfilled a pledge he made in June 2009 to Nevada resident Linda Rivera and her family.   “As I work on this legislation it will be with the goal of ensuring that more families do not suffer as you do now,” wrote Reid.

Rivera is among the most seriously injured of 80 people in 31 states who were infected with the dangerous E. coli O157:H7 bacteria after eating Nestle Toll House raw cookie dough.

Once signed by the President, which is expected shortly, the bill will begin to make a difference almost immediately.  Here are some examples:

  • The Food and Drug Administration finally will have the power to order the recall of contaminated foods.

  • Food industry employees reporting violations to the FDA will have whistleblower’s protection.

  • FDA hiring and training can begin to ramp up to a staff of 4,000 in 2011 and 5,000 in 2012 to do food safety work.  Those new hires will double today’s levels in three years.

  • FDA will have the power to inspect company records related to food.

Other provisions in the new law will take longer to implement.  The Health & Human Services Secretary will have the power to set fees for inspections, recalls, a voluntary qualified importer program, and for importer re-inspections.

Through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, the HHS Secretary is charged with improving foodborne illness surveillance systems to enhance collection, analysis, reporting and usefulness of data on foodborne illness.

The new food safety laws calls for risk-based inspections and a product tracing system that can track and trace food offered for import to the U.S.–for the first time subjecting imported foods to the same standards as those produced domestically.

 It also calls for the HHS Secretary to issue “guidance” to reduce the risk from the most significant foodborne contaminants, and to establish “minimum standards” for safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables.

Exempt from the 89-page bill are small farms and mom-and-pop producers that sell directly to consumers, including roadside stands, farmers’ markets and participants in community supported agricultural programs.

The landmark legislation amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which is enforced by FDA.

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The Food Safety News Top 17 Stories of 2010:

1.  Food safety legislation that will give the FDA authority to recall contaminated food, test more widely for dangerous pathogens and improve its ability to trace outbreaks to their source was approved and sent to the President.

2.  Some regulatory proposals seemed to be on hold, or stuck in a bottleneck, at the USDA.

3.  Despite assurances to the contrary, questions remain about the safety of Gulf seafood, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

4.  The recall of more than 500 million eggs after health authorities traced Salmonella that sickened more than 1,900 to two Iowa producers.

5.  A dance instructor’s battle with E. coli after eating a contaminated hamburger brought a Pulitzer and a settlement.

6.  The seizure of raw-milk cheese from a Washington state farm contaminated with Listeria illustrated the emotional debate over whether food produced on small farms is safer than food produced by agribusiness.

7.  To solve a Salmonella Montevideo outbreak that infected 272 people in 44 states and Washington D.C., federal and state health authorities had to follow a pepper trail from a Rhode Island ready-to-eat meat company to Vietnam.

8.  Opponents of food safety regulation may feel threatened by what they imagine is heavy-handed government, but a report from the Inspector General found that except for meat, most food in this country goes uninspected

9.  In the ongoing controversy over whether unpasteurized milk is a right or a public health hazard, Wisconsin’s governor vetoed a bill he thought was too lax and Minnesota shut down a raw milk dairy with sanitation problems after its E. coli-contaminated milk infected eight people.

10.  Dr. Elisabeth Hagen was given a recess appointment as Under Secretary for Food Safety and then finally confirmed by the Senate. 

11.  Another non-O157:H7 E. coli bacteria–the toxic E. coli O145–turned up in Yuma lettuce field and led to recalls of Romaine in 24 states.

12.  Civil courts distributed insurance proceeds to victims and survivors of victims of the Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella outbreak, but there was still no criminal prosecution of PCA executives who al
legedly knew their peanut butter was contaminated but shipped it anyway.

13.  A flavoring agent called hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP, was contaminated with Salmonella and brought about the recall of 177 products–the largest recall of a single ingredient in 2010.

14.  The FDA’s early detection tool, the Reportable Food Registry, proved to be a success.

15.  Wyoming toyed with a “food freedom” approach to food safety by considering legislation that would give “cottage foods,” or other homemade products a free pass from regulation adn oversight.

16.  It was sentiment vs. safety as Iowa wrestled with whether to exempt a popular restaurant from the state’s food code so that it could continue to make “loose meat” sandwiches with a potentially risky but long-used Maid-Rite cooking vessel.

17.  The Drudge report crashed the Food Safety News site.

© Food Safety News
  • dangermaus

    At least they got the Tester Amendment attached to it. The original version of this bill was a monstrosity that never should have seen the light of day – Pelosi, your days are numbered. It would have put out of business the people (small farmers) that actually provide an alternative to the over-salted, sweetened, artificially-flavored, corn-derivative-based, dead, packaged food we apparently love to make ourselves fat and diabetic on. Also, at least the threat the original bill presented to wildlife and to the practice of raising animals on pastures was removed as well – I can’t believe I like something that Barbara Boxer did!
    We’ll see over the next several years if it makes a difference in incidence of food-borne illness. Although it’ll be hard to tell, given that the CDC doesn’t actually have a good idea how much food-borne illness actually is out there (given their recent revision of their estimates). I’m sure they’ll find a way to declare victory… It will be interested to see a study of news stories about food poisoning vs incidence of food poisoning five years from now… I’m sure the press and others will continue to blow the risk out of proportion.
    I think this law was written, pushed and passed by people with narrow special interests, and not people thinking about the economy, Ecology or land use. The arguments they used overstated the problem, included the unfounded assumption that the law won’t have strong negative unintended consequences, and involved arrogant bullying.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org hhamil

    Your choice for #1 is unsurprising. I agree that it is a very important story and, if fully funded and completely implemented, it could turn out to be the most important story over a period of several years. It isn’t in my top 3 for 2010 because its passage and its overall content were unsurprising. All that was surprising about the FSMA was how it passed.
    I note that for a bill that was ballyhooed as providing much needed new authority to the FDA, your list of actual new authority is quite small: mandatory recall and slightly expanded access to records.
    I also note that FSN’s “Top Food Safety Stories of 2010” does not include the CDC’s new estimates of foodborne illness, hospitalizations and deaths. Was it #18? It is #3 on my list.
    My top 2 stories went essentially unreported; so, I guess that it could be argued that, by definition, they are obviously NOT “top stories.”
    My #1 story is the overall dishonesty of the FSMA debate and the failure of the mainstream news media to question the claims that were made. I don’t know of a single news media outlet that questioned both supporters and opponents.
    Certain key apologists for the FSMA, most notably, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), seemed to believe that the end justified the means. CSPI regularly published misleading and even, false, statements. Despite the efforts of Jim Prevor and others to raise the issue of NGO sources of information also being advocates, no mainstream media ever addressed the accuracy of what came from advocates for the FSMA. The only mainstream media questions I saw were of the accuracy of claims by opponents about the FSMA’s impact on home gardens, seed collecting, etc. Not a single one of the media fact checkers addressed the claims of the supporters, only the claims of the opponents.
    The anything goes attitude (or was it just astonishing ignorance) by some advocates was epitomized by Rep. Jim McGovern’s statement during the debate of the special House rule which carefully contained and minimized discussion of HR 2751. In his final statement before the vote he said that “literally” 76,000,000 Americans are sickened, 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die each year from foodborne illness.
    My #2 story is the failure to hold the FDA accountable for its poor performance. Years ago, liberals constantly characterized Ronald Reagan as being coated in Teflon. Clearly, the FDA has one upped President Reagan for several years.
    The 2006 spinach outbreak and 2008 salmonella outbreak (attributed wrongly to both tomatoes and peppers) showed the FDA’s inability to effectively use its awesome power to issue advisories or admit error when it has clearly made a mistake. The FDA also showed its tremendous talent for damage control, particularly when aided by CSPI. Then, the Peanut Corporation of American demonstrated the FDA’s inability to handle a ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods or fraud by the management of a facility it oversees.
    In 2010, the salmonella outbreaks associated with shell eggs clearly showed the FDA’s capacity for setting bad policy, writing poor regulations, failing to follow through and enforce policies and regulations it has set and poorly prioritizing its work. The FDA also showed an incapacity for considering information that runs contrary to its biases. Throughout this, not a single key advocate for the FSMA leveled any major criticism against the FDA nor did a single one call for any change to the FSMA designed to increase accountability at the FDA. Rather, everything involving FDA performance was spun (i.e., dissembled) by the FDA and supporters of the FSMA as additional reasons to pass the FSMA. I see this as a sad commentary on the Make Our Food Safe coalition and other supporters who claimed to represent consumers in this debate.
    For those who have read my comments since the inception of Food Safety News, I want you to know that I am returning to be a full-time grower, distributor and retailer of the local, healthy food. I expect that I will seldom have time to make comments on this venue.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org Harry Hamil

    Your choice for #1 is unsurprising. I agree that it is a very important story and, if fully funded and completely implemented, it could turn out to be the most important story over a period of several years. It isn’t in my top 3 for 2010 because its passage and its overall content were unsurprising. All that was surprising about the FSMA was how it passed.
    I note that for a bill that was ballyhooed as providing much needed new authority to the FDA, your list of actual new authority is quite small: mandatory recall and slightly expanded access to records.
    I also note that FSN’s “Top Food Safety Stories of 2010” does not include the CDC’s new estimates of foodborne illness, hospitalizations and deaths. Was it #18? It is #3 on my list.
    My top 2 stories went essentially unreported; so, I guess that it could be argued that, by definition, they are obviously NOT “top stories.”
    My #1 story is the overall dishonesty of the FSMA debate and the failure of the mainstream news media to question the claims that were made. I don’t know of a single news media outlet that questioned both supporters and opponents.
    Certain key apologists for the FSMA, most notably, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), seemed to believe that the end justified the means. CSPI regularly published misleading and even, false, statements. Despite the efforts of Jim Prevor and others to raise the issue of NGO sources of information also being advocates, no mainstream media ever addressed the accuracy of what came from advocates for the FSMA. The only mainstream media questions I saw were of the accuracy of claims by opponents about the FSMA’s impact on home gardens, seed collecting, etc. Not a single one of the media fact checkers addressed the claims of the supporters, only the claims of the opponents.
    The anything goes attitude (or was it just astonishing ignorance) by some advocates was epitomized by Rep. Jim McGovern’s statement during the debate of the special House rule which carefully contained and minimized discussion of HR 2751. In his final statement before the vote he said that “literally” 76,000,000 Americans are sickened, 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die each year from foodborne illness.
    My #2 story is the failure to hold the FDA accountable for its poor performance. Years ago, liberals constantly characterized Ronald Reagan as being coated in Teflon. Clearly, the FDA has one upped President Reagan for several years.
    The 2006 spinach outbreak and 2008 salmonella outbreak (attributed wrongly to both tomatoes and peppers) showed the FDA’s inability to effectively use its awesome power to issue advisories or admit error when it has clearly made a mistake. The FDA also showed its tremendous talent for damage control, particularly when aided by CSPI. Then, the Peanut Corporation of American demonstrated the FDA’s inability to handle a ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods or fraud by the management of a facility it oversees.
    In 2010, the salmonella outbreaks associated with shell eggs clearly showed the FDA’s capacity for setting bad policy, writing poor regulations, failing to follow through and enforce policies and regulations it has set and poorly prioritizing its work. The FDA also showed an incapacity for considering information that runs contrary to its biases. Throughout this, not a single key advocate for the FSMA leveled any major criticism against the FDA nor did a single one call for any change to the FSMA designed to increase accountability at the FDA. Rather, everything involving FDA performance was spun (i.e., dissembled) by the FDA and supporters of the FSMA as additional reasons to pass the FSMA. I see this as a sad commentary on the Make Our Food Safe coalition and other supporters who claimed to represent consumers in this debate.
    For those who have read my comments since the inception of Food Safety News, I want you to know that I am returning to be a full-time grower, distributor and retailer of the local, healthy food. I expect that I will seldom have time to make comments on this venue.

  • http://Www.marlerblog.com Bill

    Say it ain’t so Harry. He’ll, half the reason I read FSN are yours and Dangermaus’s comments.

  • Michael Bulger

    Good luck with the crops.

  • Doc Mudd

    The entire nearly one acre of them.