09/16/2010 11:30 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In The Public Interest : Food Safety Delays Make Us Sick

Last week, I met an extraordinary eighth grader from Henderson, Nevada.

Rylee Gustafson may be only 13 years old, but she got excused from school to come to Washington, D.C. to join the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), the Center of Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America in urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to finish the job of updating the FDA's food safety authority by passing the bipartisan FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510).

Rylee knows firsthand the danger of allowing the antiquated food safety system to continue as is. For her ninth birthday, Rylee's family took a trip to California where she ate a spinach salad contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Instead of seeing the sights, Rylee and her family saw three hospitals, and eventually spent 30 days in a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit after her blood pressure dropped, she became dehydrated and her kidneys began to fail. She returned home to miss two more months of school while she recovered.

The report (PDF) that Rylee helped our groups release showed that the August nationwide recall of half a billion eggs was far from the only time in the past year that American consumers have been told that the food in their refrigerator could make them sick.

While the Wright Egg Farm and Hillandale recalls were the biggest, they were just two of more than 85 food recalls involving 153 companies that happened while the Senate has stalled on passing much needed protections. (The House passed its food safety bill in July 2009.)

Americans have seen recalls of everything from Pringles potato crisps to Eggo frozen waffles to Slim Fast meal replacement drinks. The pending food safety bill will give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to order a mandatory recall of unsafe food (shocking but true--most food recalls are voluntary on the company's part) and require regular inspections of high-risk food processing facilities. The now notoriously filthy Wright County Egg facility hadn't been inspected until the salmonella outbreak began. But Congressional investigators have uncovered company records that reveal 426 instances of salmonella contamination in the facility since 2008.

Regular inspections of food factories will keep unsafe food off store shelves and off our breakfast tables in the first place. Mandatory recall authority will speed up the process of getting unsafe food off the market when problems arise. The end result will be far more appetizing than the current system. The Senate should waste no more time in passing this common sense public health bill.