Will The Food Safety Bill Make Our Meals Safer?

Almost a year and a half after the House passed a bill to toughen the nation's food safety rules, the Senate finally seems poised to take up the issue.

The Senate began debating the food safety bill Wednesday but the measure may be tangled up in jockeying and debate for days -- even weeks.

The bill would give the FDA the power to mandate food recalls. It would also allow the FDA to increase inspections of food producers, improve tracking of fruit and vegetable shipments and set stricter standards for food manufacturers to help prevent outbreaks of contamination.

As the Senate begins to debate a food safety bill, ABC News decided to check with some of those we have interviewed over the past few years while covering dozens of recalls of everything from soup to nuts. We asked for their opinion on the most important changes they hope will emerge from a food safety law. How will this make our meals safer? And what is it missing?

Here are some of their responses:

Caroline Smith DeWaal

Caroline Smith DeWaal

Director, Food Policy, Center for Science in Public Interest

"It will be a huge victory for consumers when it passes, and will pay off rapidly with better public health and economic protections."

"This historic legislation will modernize FDA's food safety system for the first time in 70 years. It will require all food processors to implement process control systems that can be checked during more frequent government inspections. With better internal controls and better oversight, the legislation will help to prevent contaminated foods from reaching the public. And when problems do occur, the legislation gives FDA important new tools, like mandatory recall authority, civil penalties, and pilot traceability programs, that will help reduce the public health burden on consumers."

"With respect to imported foods, we have been growing increasingly concerned that the US system was falling behind many other countries. While members of Congress like to say that we have 'the safest food supply in the world,' the growth in imported products in the last 20 years means consumers are increasingly reliant on FDA's understaffed and antiquated import approval systems. The fact that the European Union and many other countries have modernized their food systems and instituted rapid alert systems increased the risk that the US would become a dumping ground for products that couldn't get into those markets. Passage of the legislation is essential to ensure that this doesn't happen."

Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle

Professor, New York University

"I support passing S. 510 and I think it's a travesty that the Senate has been sitting on it so long (since July 2009). Truly shocking. The bill has bipartisan support but neither party wants the other to get credit for passing it. I'm not kidding -- everyone I talk to says that's the main reason it hasn't been passed yet."

"What it does is to give the FDA authority to require science-based food safety plans -- from farm to table -- to inspect, and to recall unsafe foods. It also authorizes increases in the number of inspectors. These are badly needed food safety measures."

"What it does not do is create a single food safety agency that combines the functions of USDA and FDA. This was considered politically unfeasible. Instead, fixing the FDA is step #1. Eventually, food safety advocates hope that step #2 will be to fix the USDA so the rules match, and then start working on the single agency."

Kathy Means

Kathy Means

Vice President of Government Relations and Public Affairs, Produce Marketing Association

UPDATE:The addition of an amendment Thursday in the Senate caused the produce industry to now oppose the bill.

"An amendment that was added to the bill by Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) on the eve of the now-ongoing Senate debate exempts processors or farmers who meet certain criteria unrelated to risk. For example, it would exempt a food facility or farm if it has sales of $500,000 or less, or sells half of its food to retailers, restaurants, or consumers in the same state or within 275 miles. If this were enacted, federal regulation would apply based on where the food is sold and how much it earns – neither of which are risk factors," said Produce Marketing Association Brian Silberman in a letter to association members.

Here are PMA's original reasons for supporting the previous version of the bill:

"At PMA, we have supported food safety reform -- legislative and regulatory -- for years. We believe everyone needs to be covered so that we don't have any holes in the food safety net. Germs don't discriminate based on region, crop, size of farm, or anything else."

"Though not perfect (what bill ever is?), the bill being considered by the Senate has provisions we endorse, including a science- and risk-based approach to food safety that applies to everyone."

"I'm not sure what we may see in the way of amendments, but we wouldn't want to see anything that might weaken consumer protection applied to this bill. Consumer confidence is essential to our industry, and having national safety standards for all is critical to building that confidence."

"I know that some have talked about exempting smaller growers. We oppose those exemptions but we support efforts to provide technical assistance, training, extended transition timeframes for compliance, and financial support as ways to help small businesses with food safety. There are efforts under way already through USDA grants in several states (including our home state of Delaware) to help smaller growers develop stronger food safety programs."

"So the upshot is that we urge the Senate to move forward on this bill right away and to reject amendments that could weaken it."

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Author

"I think the bill is important and will take some important steps toward making at least part of the food chain safer (it doesn't deal with meat at all), however there is concern among small farmers and food producers that the regulatory burden will be so onerous as to stifle the renaissance of local food production underway. The manager's amendment goes some distance toward averting this, and so does the Tester amendment. I think if the bill passes without either of those amendments it will hurt small farmers -- who are not the main source of our food safety problems."

Patty Lovera

Assistant Director, Food & Water Watch

"There has been a lot of controversy about the impact that FDA reform legislation could have on small farms and small food processing businesses. There are several pieces of the Senate bill that address this, and one more, an amendment by Senators Tester and Hagan, would exempt small farms and processors from some requirements of the bill if they meet certain conditions. We support that amendment and think it should be in the final version of the bill, to make sure that FDA is focused on inspecting and regulating the largest operations that produce the most food."

"There are parts of the legislation that would address some long overdue gaps in FDA's authority -- such as giving the agency mandatory recall authority (right now, food recalls are voluntary and are called by the company.) But we would like to see some additions to the Senate bill to make FDA function even better, primarily an increase in the frequency of inspection (right now, the bill calls for inspecting high risk food processing facilities once every five years), giving the agency access to records kept by the company when they are there for a routine inspection (now they have to wait for a problem before looking at the company's records, which is a little late to find out that they weren't keeping good records), and tightening the requirements for imported food inspection."

William Hubbard

William Hubbard

Former Associate Commissioner, FDA

"The food safety bill, if enacted, would allow FDA to transform the food safety system in the United States, which currently puts most responsibility on that agency to prevent food contamination, but which has been shown to be ineffective."<

"The bill would focus FDA on setting standards for assuring safe food production, and rely on food producers to carry out those standards by preventing food from becoming contaminated in the first place. It would give FDA authority to recall contaminated food and require importers of food from other countries to be more vigilant in bringing in safe food. Passage of the bill would be the most important advance in food safety since FDA was created in 1906."

"However, FDA's budget for food safety has been so reduced in recent years, that the agency will need new inspectors and other scientists to allow the bill to have its full benefit."<

Scott Faber

Scott Faber

Vice President for Federal Affairs, Grocery Manufacturers Association

"We feel that now more than ever the time is right for the Senate to pass the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. GMA and the food and beverage industry is committed to partnering with Congress, the Obama administration and the FDA to strengthen and modernize our nation's food safety system. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act pending in the Senate, if passed, will provide FDA with the resources and authorities the agency needs to help strengthen our nation's food safety system by making prevention the focus of our food safety strategies. We are urging the Senate to vote on this important, bipartisan bill early in the lame duck session."<

"The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act will enhance public health and safety by requiring all food companies to develop a food safety plan, adopting a risk-based approach to inspection and improving the safety of imported food and food ingredients."

Douglas Powell

Dr. Douglas Powell

Associate Professor, Kansas State University

"Government sets minimal standards, which the best food producers, processors and retailers exceed daily, while talking heads blather. There are bad players in the system, which government is supposed to catch, but given the pervasive food safety outbreaks over the past 20 years, they don't seem very good at it."

"Will the new bill mean fewer sick people? Doubtful."

Susan Davison

Director, Corporate Affairs, Kraft Foods Inc.

"The safety and quality of our products are of the highest importance to us -- as are the trust and confidence of our consumers and customers. And, at Kraft Foods, we work to earn that trust every day."

"We support legislation that will strengthen America's food safety systems. There are a number of measures we believe will help accomplish this goal, including:

The requirement for comprehensive food safety plans so that every manufacturer will take a preventive approach to identifying and evaluating potential hazards.

Increased funding for FDA that includes helping to improve food safety science. It is critically important to rebuild a strong scientific base within FDA.

We believe that these actions, among others, will help strengthen food safety in the United States. We look forward to the opportunities for improvement that will come with a new statutory framework."

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