Editor’s note:  This is the first in a series of articles from CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal on the implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.  In the first installment, DeWaal explains which provisions of the historic law will be the first to benefit consumers.

With the signing of the historic FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, President Obama and Congress have adopted the first comprehensive overhaul of the food safety program at the Food and Drug Administration.  This overhaul will replace the reactive legal structure under which FDA responded to problems–adulterated or misbranded foods already on the market–with a preventive mandate.  The new structure gives FDA much greater oversight over the food industry, including requiring facilities to register every two years, to develop new food safety plans, and to provide the agency with test results.  The bill also gives greater incentives for the industry and importers to implement strong food safety programs, so that one bad actor is less likely to have an adverse impact on an entire segment of the industry, which is what happened to spinach growers a few years ago. 

The new program will take several years to roll out; even longer to become fully effective.  In a series of articles, CSPI will give FDA-watchers a timeline for implementation of the new law, with emphasis on speed and priorities, highlighting things with the greatest consumer and industry impacts. 

In this first installment, we will focus on several little known provisions that complement the mandatory recall provision. This has been widely touted as one of the biggest victories for consumers, though it may see little use if the food industry is careful and compliant with FDA’s requests for voluntary recalls.   

Mandatory recall is one of the few provisions of the Modernization Act that goes into effect immediately. The provision will likely reduce the length of time that FDA spends in negotiating voluntary recalls with the companies involved.  And delays in recalls can have serious consequences.  Consumers are often the last to know when there is a problem with the food supply, and too often they are not alerted until the food is already being sold, which means that it could already be on their shelves or in their family’s dinner. 

Second, the legislation requires FDA to develop by this coming April a consumer-friendly website to help identify food that is subject to a recall.  That website should provide searchable, product-specific information for consumers, as well as information about the status of the recall (ongoing, completed, etc).  The current FDA recall search engine is cumbersome and not useful to consumers looking for brand names or other key terms. 

Third, in a two-step process, the legislation requires grocery stores to provide notices about recalls to customers when they are shopping.  FDA will first identify for grocery stores “conspicuous locations” for posting such notices, and in 18 months, food companies will be required to give grocery stores notices to post.  Currently consumers receive little or no in-store messaging, which leaves many standing in the grocery store wondering about a current recall and whether something they purchased last week was involved.  The Secretary’s list of conspicuous locations for notice will include targeted recall information at the point of purchase, and may extend to other types of notification, such as via text, phone or email of a recall.   

While the overall goal of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is to prevent food from becoming contaminated in the first place, these provisions will provide some immediate consumer benefits before the other components come on-line. 

Next installment —  New teeth in the law:  Registration, suspension and records access