Deadly outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have been all too common in recent years, from salmonella-tainted peanut butter to E. coli in the vegetables we eat.
We now have a real opportunity to reverse this disturbing trend, if we do it the right way.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rung in the New Year by releasing two long-awaited proposed rules to improve food safety, one aimed at produce farmers, the other at the food-processing industry.
Three more important rules, including one focused on imported food, are still sitting behind government-agency doors. We hope these rules will emerge soon.
The rules are the result of a law called the Food Safety Modernization Act. It requires a massive overhaul of our food-safety system, which is long overdue.
The law reorients FDA to preventing food-safety problems before people are hurt, rather than just reacting to an outbreak after a product winds up in stores or your kitchen. Groups like ours pushed hard for this law to bring food-safety rules into the 21st century.
This month's proposed rules would set higher standards for the sanitary conditions in food processing plants, covering things like getting rid of rats and bird nests from the facilities (I'll pause for a moment while you set aside that mental image). The rules would also require farmers to provide hand-washing and restroom facilities for their workers, and make sure that their irrigation water is clean.
Those are some good steps, but we have concerns, too. For instance, as we comb through the hundreds of pages of proposals, there are no specific requirements that bagged spinach be tested for pathogens before the produce leaves the bagging plant. One of the deadly contaminations that prompted these rules was the 2006 outbreak of E. Coli in spinach, so this should be a priority.
Now that the government is finally moving forward on these rules, we are going to keep up the pressure to ensure that you are getting the protections you deserve, and these reforms are not gutted or watered down.
The rules are not final and in effect yet. Starting this week, you can see the rules for yourself here and comment on the proposed rules at www.regulations.gov . The FDA will take comments from the public through May 16.
To learn more about our efforts to keep our food safe, visit our web site www.notinmyfood.org.