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Will the FSMA Prove Effective Enough to Bolster Food Safety in the US?

MAY 17, 2016 | BRIAN P. DUNLEAVY
New legislation designed to bolster food safety regulations in the United States largely hands increased power to state agencies overseeing the farming sector.
 
Although the law, known collectively as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), is the most comprehensive food safety-related legislation passed by Congress in decades, experts in public health and infectious diseases question whether it goes far enough—or is worth the added expense it will likely entail. The act was signed into law by President Obama in January 2011 and is set to take effect gradually, from now until 2020.
 
“[The FSMA is] the most sweeping regulation, or actually group of regulations, since the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938,” Keith R. Schneider, PhD, professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Florida told Contagion. “The goal is to make food safer, but not so expensive that people die of malnutrition.”
 
Essentially, as written, the FSMA authorizes the US Food and Drug Administration enhanced regulatory power over the production of fresh fruit and vegetables domestically, while imposing new safety standards upon imported food products. In addition, the law includes provisions designed to integrate food safety initiatives across federal, state, and local governments.
 
The law applies to all farms (except meat, poultry, and egg producers) with more than $500,000 in annual sales—and, to date, these businesses have largely supported it. States will be responsible for on-site inspections and laboratory testing for water quality, sanitation, composting, and farm-worker training and hygiene. Those states that produce low amounts of the fruits and vegetables covered by the law can opt out; in opt-out states, the federal government will perform inspections and oversee enforcement.
 
The FSMA was approved amidst a number of high-profile outbreaks of food-borne infections, and takes effect in a similar climate. Manufacturer Dole has recently been linked to a listeria outbreak, and is accused of failing to act upon it quickly enough after it was discovered. Interestingly, since the passage of the law, demand for fresh fruit and vegetables—as opposed to commercially farmed and packaged products—has increased dramatically, and regulators have placed greater emphasis on preventing outbreaks, as opposed to containing them once they have been identified. Still, state agriculture officials across the country have been quoted in media reports on the FSMA as questioning whether the federal government will follow through with promised funds to finance the necessary farm inspections and standards enforcement.
 
Indeed, multiple food safety and consumer groups, as well as organizations such as The Pew Charitable Trusts, which oversees the Safe Food Project, have called for full funding of the law. Published reports indicate that President Obama’s 2017 budget calls for the provision of $19 million in funding to assist states in law implementation, while, at press time, Congress was reportedly considering an increase to the federal contribution.
 
“In general, food safety laws like FSMA are good for the consumer [because] they make food safer,” Dr. Schneider said. “The downside is [they] cost money, which makes companies less profitable and makes it harder for smaller companies to compete with larger companies or companies with lower labor costs outside the US.”
 
According to Dr. Schneider, the question as to the efficacy of laws such as the FSMA really is: “How much safety are you willing to pay for?”
 
“Safer could mean more processing, which isn’t ‘in vogue’ currently,” he continued. “Look at raw milk. My perspective is drinking raw milk is lunacy, but if you’re a person who wants to drink raw milk you’d think pasteurization is evil. They have forgotten that pasteurization saves lives.”
 
Because of the law’s gradual implementation schedule, it is likely that its effects from a public health standpoint—with regard to preventing outbreaks of food-borne infections—will remain unknown until all of its provisions have been enacted. Until then, apparently, Americans will have to continue to be careful about the fruits and vegetables they eat, and where they get them from.
 
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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