Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of Food and Drugs. (Photo: Eric Bridiers / US Mission Geneva)
A law signed by President Obama on Tuesday gives federal regulators new authority and enforcement tools to oversee the safety of the country's food supply and requires the food industry to take preventative measures to reduce the risk of spreading food-borne illnesses.
The new law, dubbed the Food Safety Modernization Act, expands the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and authorizes the FDA to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated foods.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the new food safety law is "long overdue." Food-borne illness cases in the US have risen significantly since the 1990s, with an average of one in six Americans becoming sick and about 3,000 dying from contaminated food each year, Sebelius said.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said that, while the food industry is usually cooperative when regulators issue a recall, there have been instances where the FDA had to push state authorities to take action during illness outbreaks and even take food companies to court.
The FDA can also require food producers to issue and implement preventative action plans to stop illness outbreaks before they start.
"Federal officials for decades have acted as detectives to track down food borne illness, now this will reverse that with an emphasis on protection," said Erik Olson, a director of the Pew Health Group, which helped push the law through Congress.
Implementation of the law will cost $1.4 billion over the next five years, and Hamburg said the FDA would work with Congress to make sure the funding is available.
The law saw some resistance in Congress from Republicans seeking to curb domestic spending, but Olson said the emphasis on prevention of food-borne illness outbreaks could save billions in dollars in health care costs alone.
An amendment to the law exempts small farmers from implementing some of the more costly measures included in the FDA's new food safety plan, which appeased organic food and consumer groups concerned that the cost of keeping up with new regulations could favor big business and cripple small family and organic farms.
Hamburg said the law establishes a new set of standards for food safety, but there will not be a "one size fits all" approach to implementation because the agency works with a diverse range of food producers.
The law also gives the FDA more power to regulate imported foods. Food importers will be required to show that food brought to the US meets domestic standards, and the FDA can block imports if foreign food production facilities refuse US inspections.
New whistleblower protections included in the law guarantee that food company employees will be protected if they report food safety violations.
Pam Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said the food industry supports the new law and strong government oversight, and the food industry will remain responsible for the safety of its products.