Lung cancer and a brain tumor didn’t kill my mother — Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter did.
My friends and family mourned her passing, but we resolved to try to fix the system that ultimately allowed irresponsible food manufacturers to ship tainted peanut products nationwide, sickening more than 700 people and killing nine.
In February 2009, I testified before Congress to call attention to the crimes committed by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives. It is the government’s job to protect us from these deliberate misdeeds. Families and individuals whose lives were forever changed by foodborne illness helped pass the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) groundbreaking food safety law, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) — a critical first step toward the kind of food safety oversight that could have protected my mother and hundreds more from the PCA executives who be sentenced on Sept. 21.
FSMA shifts FDA’s focus from reaction to prevention and makes growers and food producers fully responsible for the safety of their products. As I write this, one of the law’s powerful, prevention-based oversight rules is being finalized and released: preventive controls for human and animal foods. The preventive controls rule requires that companies put in place measures to minimize contamination and risk — and FDA can levy fines or stop contaminated products from ever reaching a grocery shelf. Under FSMA, if FDA uncovers a problem (including rodent and mold infestations) at a food processing facility — as they did at one PCA plant — the agency can shut that facility down. For the first time, the new law requires that every food facility be subject to more frequent FDA inspections. Finally, FDA now has the authority to require a company to recall potentially unsafe products.
The preventive controls rules are just one piece of the law. FSMA also includes re-tooled safety standards for fresh produce and imposes stricter guidelines for imported foods. These efforts are critical to keep pace with a food production and regulatory system that has evolved and become much more complex in the past 50 years.
I firmly believe that if FSMA had been in place in 2009, my mother would still be with us — and so, food safety advocates like me have worked for years to make FSMA a reality. It turns out that it’s not that simple. Today, we have a law — signed by the president more than four years ago — but the law does not have the robust funding required to do all that we need it to.
The House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016 award the FDA $41 million and $41.5 million, respectively, for FSMA implementation. FDA had asked for $109.5 million — almost three times as much as what lawmakers are proposing.
Sadly, this is nothing new. Each year, Congress acknowledges FSMA’s importance by granting some funds to implement the law. But each year, these funds fall far short. For FY 2014, FDA got $53 million for FSMA. For FY 2015, it was only $27.5 million. The reality is that without full funding, the law that we toiled day and night to pass — the law that might have saved our friends and loved ones’ lives — cannot meet its potential. Congress must give FDA the funds it needs to protect our food supply and prevent PCA-like abuses in the future.
In Albany, GA, later this month, I will stand in a courtroom with other families that have been impacted and witness the sentencing of convicted former PCA employees. But our day in court won’t solve everything — and it certainly won’t bring my mother back.
We need a fully implemented and fully funded FSMA to fix the food safety system. It’s what we need, deserve and have fought for up till now — and I know that my mother would want me to keep fighting.
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