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Food Safety Modernization Act: Historic, Not a Quick Fix

Oct 20, 2011

CLF’s Keeve Nachman, director of the Farming for the Future Program, spoke recently at the Bloomberg School’s Public Health Practice Grand Rounds with a senior adviser from the FDA, who outlined the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

The senior adviser, Sharon Mayl, JD, provided an overview of the new FSMA, which was passed in January of this year, highlighting the most significant changes that will be put into place by the law, and also emphasizing that “this is a big job, protecting the food supply.” The FDA will not make its one-year deadline for implementing the new law, she said. “This is a long-term project, it’s not a quick fix, and this is a tight financial climate,” she said. “We’ve been asked to do more with the same, or even fewer, resources.”

The most groundbreaking shift to be implemented with the new law, she said, concerns the safety of imported food. High-risk foods have been identified, and importers in the U.S. will be required to meet FDA standards with all the foods that they import from other countries. Other FSMA priorities include upholding higher safety standards for fruit and vegetables, prevention controls, and safeguarding food supply from intentional contamination (tampering).

Mayl pointed out that the food supply has changed dramatically, and now 15 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. is imported: 80 percent of the seafood we eat is imported, as is 10-20 percent of our vegetables. Traditionally, imported food was inspected at border and ports. “It worked with molasses, spices, sugar, fairly low-risk foods. Now that we import raspberries, cantaloupes, and sea bass, catching things at the border doesn’t work any more.”

Nachman addressed the ways in which industrial food animal production puts our food crops at risk. Untreated animal waste is often used as a soil amendment and is rife with contaminants, which can be transferred to the surface of crops by people or wild animals; also, microorganisms can be transferred to the tissues of crops, in which case there’s little recourse for minimizing exposure. He underlined the risks associated with creating antibiotic-resistant pathogens by routinely feeding livestock antibiotics and antimicrobials. “Based on what we feed food animals, we can anticipate that certain hazards will persist in animal waste,” he said.

“FDA has a very full plate implementing these regs,” he said, but he said that he was hopeful about how the regulations will roll out.

Mayl encouraged the public health community to influence the implementation of the regulations by engaging with the FDA during the comments period. She also noted that the FSMA is the first overhaul of food safety laws since the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act.

To learn more about the FSMA, visit the FDA website. To watch a recording of the grand rounds presentation, watch here.