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So here's a brilliant idea: If you want to keep fresh fruits and vegetables from becoming contaminated and making people sick, how about making sure that workers wash their hands, crops are irrigated with unpolluted water, processing equipment stays clean and animals are kept away from crops? Sounds simple, but it's taken years for the government, consumers and the food industry to agree on how to enforce these things.
Last week, two years to the day after Congress passed landmark food-safety legislation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally announced new food-safety rules that will give the agency the authority to help prevent the food-borne illnesses that sicken or kill thousands of Americans each year.
The proposed new regulations, the most sweeping in decades, will address a major weakness in FDA authority: that it can react only after people become sick, instead of having the clout to prevent outbreaks in the first place. About one in six Americans suffers a food-borne illness annually. Of those who become sick, 130,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, according to the agency.
The first proposed rule would require both domestic and foreign producers of food sold in the U.S. to submit food-safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean and correcting any problems that occur. The second rule would address the contamination of fruit and vegetables during harvesting, including from workers, water or wildlife, the Associated Press reported.
"We're taking a big step for food safety by proposing the standards that will help us prevent food-safety problems rather than just reacting to them," Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, told Reuters.
The reforms are part of the Food Safety Modernization Act that President Obama signed two years ago in response to a string of deadly outbreaks of illness from contaminated spinach, eggs, peanut butter and imported produce. The outbreaks caused both consumer advocates and the food industry to push for more stringent standards, reported the Los Angeles Times, although announcement of the new guidelines was delayed a year past schedule - perhaps, some thought, to avoid political fallout during the election.
The new rules could help prevent such food-borne fatalities as those caused by the 2011 listeria contamination in cantaloupes, which claimed 33 lives. After people became ill, FDA officials inspected the Colorado farm where the melons were grown and found pools of dirty water on the floor and old, dirty processing equipment. During last year's salmonella outbreak from peanut butter, inspectors found contamination at a New Mexico peanut-processing plant and multiple health-safety problems, including birds flying over uncovered trailers of peanuts and employees not washing their hands, reported the Associated Press.
Unfortunately, it will take at least three years before these proposed new safeguards are actually preventing outbreaks. There's a four-month comment period, then another year for the agency to craft the final version, and then farms would have at least two years to comply, Taylor said.
The new rules could cost large farms $30,000 a year, the FDA said, but so far the industry seems cautiously satisfied. Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the country's biggest food companies, said in a statement that the food-safety law "can serve as a role model for what can be achieved when the private and public sectors work together to achieve a common goal."
Photo: mrsdkrebs /flickr