Seventy-six million. That’s how many Americans each year get sick from something they eat. Of the 76 million, 350,000 end up in the hospital and 5,000 end up dead.
Seventy-six million people. Roughly one fourth of the total U.S. population, it seems a rather high figure, particularly when we’ve figured out how to swap, replace, and reconstruct human organs. One would think figuring out how to make a safe hamburger would be a cinch.
But understanding why, in an age of spectacular ingenuity, eating remains so dangerous an activity, it is helpful to look at another number: 72. This is how many years have passed since the passage of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act, the piece of legislation that still governs much of the nation’s food-safety system.
To be sure, the FD&C Act has been amended many times over the years to meet needs Congress could not have foreseen in 1938. But there is now consensus that the bill is a fundamentally inadequate protection against modern safety hazards like E. coli, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens that can contaminate the food supply, causing widespread outbreaks and damaging the reputation of the foodservice industry, particularly restaurants. As David Plunkett, attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says, “We can’t continue to operate as if it’s 1938.”
The FD&C Act came in response to hazardous foodservice practices like “pouring coal tar and various other ingredients into products in order to make them look more attractive … to really fool the customer,” Plunkett says. It gave the FDA a “police power” to criminally prosecute companies engaging in such practices.
“That’s not the problem we’ve got today,” Plunkett says. “The contamination and the illness and the death is inadvertent. It’s not something that’s criminal.”
Hence the need for a new legislative framework to ensure food safety in the 21st century.
The fundamental weakness of the FD&C Act, according to many food-safety experts, is that it is reactive. What is needed, says Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA and a leading figure in the push to reform food-safety legislation at the federal level, is a system that stops safety breaches in the first place.
“We need additional tools to have a food-safety system that is as preventive as possible,” Taylor says. “We don’t have adequate tools now.”
That may soon change. In April, the Senate was about to start debating the FDA Modernization Act, which food experts say would go a long way in updating the food-safety system, but financial reform bumped it from the legislative agenda. Health care reform had done the same months earlier.
The Modernization Act would overhaul the FD&C Act by increasing the FDA’s ability to monitor the nation’s food supply and to take stronger action when safety issues arise. Specifically, the act authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to suspend the registration of food facilities, order immediate recalls of tainted food, and assess and collect fees related to recalls and reinspections. It also empowers the Secretary to track and trace raw agricultural commodities and increases regulation of foreign imports.
“The bill contains the basic elements of a modern, preventive, controlled approach,” Taylor says.