An editorial in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association heralds the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as  “a remarkable step forward for the food safety system” but cautions that the “act leaves critical gaps in the regulatory system.”

The commentary, written by attorneys Katie Stewart and Lawrence Gostin of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University Law Center, cites several “enduring gaps” in food safety regulation:

gapsinfoodsafety-iphone.jpg— The continued fragmentation of federal oversight, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for meat and poultry, which are not covered by the Food and Drug Administration and the FSMA.

“Although the FSMA seeks FDA-USDA collaboration in designing certain safety standards, it does not consolidate food safety functions into a single agency as the Government Accountability Office recommended,” the authors note.

— The Tester Amendment, which exempted small farms and producers from prevention requirements their advocates claimed were too costly or inconvenient.

“Under the FSMA, a small producer’s exemption is lost only after a safety problem has been identified, undermining the act’s prevention aim,” the authors write. “Although small producers pose different challenges than multinational conglomerates, a robust food safety system requires regulation of all system participants to ensure both public health and public confidence.”

— The prospect of  inadequate funding by Congress to carry out the FDA’s new mandates for prevention of contamination at the farm or factory, greater recall authority and improved surveillance of imported foods.

“Food safety is not an assured priority within a harsh political environment stressing spending restraints and less-burdensome regulation,” the editorial states.

Foodborne pathogens remain a major public health challenge in the United States, causing an estimated 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths annually. The authors note that the recent outbreaks in the United States linked to spinach, peanut butter and eggs, as well as the ongoing deadly E. coli outbreak centered in Germany, have heightened public concern about food safety.

They conclude that, overall, the “FSMA fundamentally reforms an antiquated US food safety system and will significantly improve the public’s health. Enhancing food safety requires not only effective government regulation, but also advances in regulatory science, industry accountability, and consumer education around safe food handling.”