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Coalition letter to the House about food safety

August 1, 2008
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C., 20515
Dear Representative:
Our organizations, representing consumers, scientists, and advocates for public health, write to urge you to include the strongest, most protective measures in any food safety legislation that the House of Representatives considers. The ongoing outbreak of Salmonella in produce that has now sickened more than twelve hundred people, and extreme difficulty in identifying the source of this outbreak, are just the latest examples of the inadequacy of our current food safety system. The past few years have brought a disturbing onslaught of foodborne illness outbreaks, recalls, and other evidence demonstrating the myriad ways in which our food safety system is broken. Commonly used consumer products such as spinach, peanut butter, and seafood were among the foods implicated.
The time to reform the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now. In order for reform to be meaningful, it must include certain measures. Our groups strongly urge you to include the following elements in any food safety legislation:

  • A Substantial Increase in Resources for FDA: Assuring the safety of food consumed by the American people is a basic public health protection. FDA is an agency currently unable to do its job to protect consumers from unsafe food. Significantly increasing appropriations for the agency is essential. It is also critical that FDA uses its resources effectively and that Congress monitor FDA’s utilization of increased funding. Fees associated with annual registration of food producing establishments could help ensure that FDA has the funds to oversee these facilities properly, but should in no way supplant appropriated dollars.
  • Mandatory recall authority and disclosure of retail consignees: When FDA discovers a problem, it is forced to ask companies to voluntarily recall an unsafe product. It is important that FDA be able to act quickly in such situations and order a mandatory recall. FDA should also be required to inform consumers of all retail outlets, schools, nursing homes, etc. that are involved in a recall.
  • Process Controls: Any modern food safety system must focus on prevention, and ensure that companies are building safe practices directly into production. Production facilities should be required to develop and use written food safety plans to identify hazards likely to occur in their facilities, and then implement validated measures to reduce those hazards in food products.
  • Strong Food Safety Standards: Contamination can occur at many points along the food chain, including production, processing, shipping, or handling. Such contamination can include bacteria, illegal antibiotic residues, heavy metals, and pesticides. FDA must establish and enforce clear performance standards for food products to reduce the risk of contaminated food being released into the marketplace.
  • Traceability: As the recent Salmonella outbreak has demonstrated, we desperately need to be able to trace our food throughout the supply chain. Processors must be required to maintain detailed records of both their incoming supplies and outgoing shipments to their customers. They must also mark food to ensure easy traceback, especially of fruits and vegetables, during an outbreak. The markings must be specific enough to extend all the way back to the farm(s) of origin. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll shows that 86 percent of consumers support traceability. [1] Traceback will both save the industry from lost profits and reduce consumer confusion during outbreaks.
  • Food Facility Inspection: Between 2003 and 2006, FDA domestic food safety inspections decreased 47 percent. On average, domestic food production facilities are inspected once every 5 to 10 years, foreign facilities even less frequently. Congress should require FDA to create a risk-based system of routine inspections, based on the type of food produced, how it is processed, and history of the plant and region or country where it is located, among other factors. All facilities regulated by the FDA, foreign and domestic, should be subject to mandatory, regular inspection by officers of the FDA. Higher-risk facilities should be inspected on a more frequent basis – at a minimum once a year – and all facilities must be inspected at least once every three years.
  • FDA Border Inspections: FDA inspects less than 1 percent of food imports at the border. This must be significantly increased, especially for high-risk foods. For example, the European Union physically inspects either 20 percent or 50 percent of all imported seafood shipments, depending upon the risk of the individual product. [2]
  • Whistleblower Protection: Federal employees must be protected from the threat of being fired, demoted, suspended, or harassed as a result of providing information or assisting in the investigation of a violation of a food safety law.
  • Civil Penalties: An essential element of any enforcement capability is the power to penalize manufacturers and producers for violating food safety laws as an inducement to come into compliance and a deterrent to future violations. Food companies must be subject to civil penalties for violating food safety laws.

At one time virtually all Americans believed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was on the job protecting us and our families from unsafe food. That time has passed. Consumer confidence in our food safety system must be restored. The above changes are necessary components to the restoration of our faith. We strongly urge you to include all of these elements in any food safety legislation that you consider.
Jean Halloran
Director, Food Policy Initiatives
Consumers Union
Ami Gadhia
Policy Counsel
Consumers Union
Chris Waldrop
Director, The Food Policy Institute
Consumer Federation of America
Caroline Smith Dewaal
Food Safety Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Mary Bottari
Director, Harmonization Project
Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch
Pat Buck
Executive Director
Center for Foodborne Illness and Prevention
Nancy Donley
S.T.O.P. – Safe Tables Our Priority

[1] http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/wire/ats-ap-ap-poll-food-safetyjul20,0,428028.story
[2] Food & Water Watch, “Import Alert: Government Fails Consumers, Falls Short on Seafood Inspections,” FWW report, May 2007, at 6.