Taylor calls the Modernization Act a “paradigm shift” in the way the government addresses food-safety issues. In fact, it may not have been possible under the Bush administration, which critics say allowed the food industry too much leeway in policing itself.
“The prior administration thought the market could take care of health issues to a certain extent and that the government needed to be a referee standing in the distance and watching for clear fouls,” Plunkett says.
As an example, Plunkett points to the Bush administration’s handling of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (issc), a partnership between state and federal agencies, the shellfish industry, and the academic community. The ISSC “was allowed to pretty much set its own policy and food safety really got pushed to the background,” Plunkett says. One consequence was “tremendous problems” with Gulf Coast oysters contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus, a potentially deadly bacterium.
The FDA under the Obama administration, on the other hand, charted a different course early on, going as far as to propose a ban on raw Gulf oysters. After an uproar from Gulf Coast legislators, the administration eventually backed off the proposal, originally set forth by Taylor, then an FDA senior adviser. Still, the ill-fated proposal foreshadowed significant changes on the food-safety front.
“The Bush administration was obviously very pro-business, and now we’re doing a little bit of a correction,” says Melanie Grand, an expert in food-safety policy at Missouri State University. “That needed to happen.”
A little correction could have big implications for restaurants, especially considering the deeply negative impact of food-borne illness outbreaks on the industry. The contamination point for outbreaks is often high on the supply chain, at manufacturing and processing plants. But since 41 percent of people who suffer food-borne illness come in contact with contaminated food at the restaurant level, many in the industry say restaurants endure an inordinate share of the fallout when an outbreak occurs.
“The biggest problem we have is that restaurants get blamed because we are the end-user,” says Christopher Muller, director of the Center for Multi-Unit Restaurant Management at the University of Central Florida. “Restaurants are really at the mercy of the food chain.”
For this reason, the National Restaurant Association (nra) endorsed the Modernization Act and, with a few objections, a similar bill passed in the House last year in July called the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.
“When it comes down to it, one food-borne illness outbreak can really negatively impact a restaurant’s brand,” says Dan Roehl, a member of the NRA’s policy team who works closely on food-safety issues. “Our perspective is that these bills will make the food that restaurants purchase safer.”
One of the NRA’s objections to the House bill involves a requirement that restaurants report to an FDA registry when they determine there is “reasonable probability that an article of food will cause serious adverse health consequences.” At this point, restaurants are not included on the list of “responsible parties” that must report to the registry, and the NRA says changing that would result in significant compliance costs without improving food safety.
“The difficulty with this is trying to deal with the determination factor,” Roehl says. “There was a reason restaurant managers were left out of this initially. These aren’t medical professionals. They really have no idea how to make an evaluation” about the probable risks of food-borne illness.
The NRA also objected to a provision in the House bill requiring “food facilities,” including restaurants, to maintain more thorough records of where they get their food. Since many restaurants already keep a close eye on their supply lines, Roehl says the NRA isn’t opposed to the traceability language per se. But the association worries that codifying record-keeping practices could result in an onerous standard.
“If you go to any restaurant, they can tell you where they get their product from,” Roehl says. “The issues are what kind of record-keeping would restaurants have to have, how long would they have to keep it, and in what kind of format.”