Obama to sign bill to improve food safety

2011-01-04 09:55

President Barack Obama is set to sign a $1.4 billion (about R9.3 billion) overhaul of the US food safety system today, giving Washington new power to increase inspections at food-processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted products.

Congress passed the bill at the end of last year to respond to several serious outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning in peanuts, eggs and produce in the past few years. The law will be the first major overhaul of the food safety system since the 1930s.

“It will bring our food safety system into the 21st century, improving health, saving lives and helping Americans feel confident that when they sit down at their dinner table they won’t end up in the hospital,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters yesterday.

The measure gives the Food and Drug Administration substantial new authority, but the money to carry out the legislation is not guaranteed.

Some conservative lawmakers have expressed concern about the five-year cost at a time when cutting federal spending is the Washington mantra in a tight budget environment. Supporters say they intend to push Congress for the full funding.

Republican Jack Kingston of Georgia, who hopes to become chairperson of the House Appropriations Committee, said that “our food supply is 99.999% safe.”
Kingston cited recent federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people – or one in six Americans – are sickened each year by foodborne illnesses. Of that, 180 000 were hospitalized and 3 000 died yearly.

“This will save a great deal of money, both for consumers and for the industry,” Olson told reporters.

The new law will require larger farms and food manufacturers to prepare detailed food safety plans and tell the FDA how they are striving to keep their food safe at different stages of production.

It also emphasises prevention to help stop outbreaks before they happen.

The recent salmonella and E. coli outbreaks exposed the FDA’s lack of resources and authority as it struggled to trace and contain the contaminated products.

The agency rarely inspects most food facilities and farms, visiting some about once a decade and others not at all.

Soon after taking office in 2009, Obama promised to make food safety overhaul a priority.

At the time, a widespread outbreak of salmonella in peanuts dominated headlines.

At least nine people died as a result and hundreds more were sickened.

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