The US House of Representatives yesterday (30 July) took the long-overdue step of updating the nation’s archaic food safety regulations. The food industry and consumer groups have largely welcomed the move, which is a significant step in the modernisation of the US food safety regime. However, Katy Humphries suggests the development of comprehensive food safety standards in the US remains some way off.

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year 76m Americans fall sick because of food-borne illnesses. To put this in context, the US population is a little over 300m people, so about one in four US citizens report being sickened by the food they eat every year.

High-profile food recalls – including salmonella in cookie dough, peanut butter and spinach as well as E. coli in beef products – have placed food safety firmly in the spotlight and shaken consumer confidence in the safety of the foods they buy.

The leading lights of the industry have not been immune – with Nestle having to recall its Tollhouse Cookie Dough, while Kellogg, Sara Lee and General Mills were among the swathe of companies caught up in the peanut butter scare.

With the groundswell of public opinion mounting, US politicians have swung into action.

Earlier this month, the White House said it was taking “a new public health-focused approach to food safety”.

The President’s Working Group on Food Safety based its plan on three core principles – prioritising prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery.

This line of thinking was also evident in the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives yesterday (30 July).

The act provides the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with greater enforcement powers and resources to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses.

The FDA currently has the authority to recall only a handful of products including infant formula. Under the bill, these powers will be expanded to include more – but not all – tainted food products. It will also have the ability impose quarantines to restrict the movement of food considered a threat to public safety in the US.

The FDA is also required to issue “science-based performance standards” to minimise hazards from food-borne contaminants; inspect high-risk food facilities every six to 18 month; establish a food tracing system; and establish a programme for accreditation for testing laboratories.

For their part, manufacturers must “conduct a hazard analysis, implement preventive controls and implement a food safety plan”. In addition, they will be required to pay a US$500 registration fee for each manufacturing facility operated.

Commenting on the passage of the legislation, David Plunkett, senior staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells just-food that it is a “very strong bill”.

“It is a product of the kind of negotiations you have to have to get something through Congress,” he says.

The bill, which was passed by 283 votes to 142 votes, was pushed through on its second attempt after representatives from rural states won concessions to protect the interests of farmers.

Farmers will be exempt from the FDA registration fee and regulators will have limited access to farm records.

The FDA’s power to set production standards will also be limited to include foods that are considered to represent the highest risk of contamination.

Farms and food production facilities already regulated by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service – 20% of the US food supply – will not be subject to FDA oversight. The USDA is primarily responsible for implementing rules that govern meat, poultry and eggs.

However, Plunkett adds, these “compromises” are unlikely to “significantly weaken” the bill.

As the USDA already operates on a hazard analysis basis, Plunkett argues that the bill brings the US’s food safety apparatus into alignment – and negates the need for “dual oversight”.

Despite all its promise, the Food Safety Enhancement Act does not actually specify new food safety standards. Rather, it instructs federal agencies to prepare food safety regulations, which could, potentially, be years in the making.

Notably, the bill gives the Department of Health and Human Services a three-year deadline to establish “science-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, sorting, transporting and holding of raw agricultural commodities”.

While improved food safety could be delayed as regulatory agencies set up new food safety standards, a spokesperson for the FDA insists that the agency is ready to “hit the ground running”.

However, before the FDA is able to do so, the Senate must first approve its own version, and the House and Senate negotiators will then have to negotiate a consensus.

While the Food Safety Enhancement Act is an important step in the development of a modern food safety regime in the US, the road to comprehensive food safety regulations remains a long and challenging one.