12/24/2010 09:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Food Safety Act: The New Law Will Mean (Big Food) Business as Usual--Or Will It?

Any bipartisan agreement that our badly broken food system is in dire need of repair is a step in the right direction, and so thank you and congratulations to the Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate who voted to pass the Food Safety bill yesterday. However, I think it will take a while for any sort of change, and funding will depend upon next year's Republican controlled House.

Currently, a thrice-daily activity -- eating -- is fraught with the potential dangers of illness, pai, and even death. According to the latest Center For Disease Control (CDC) estimates, each year 40 million people suffer from food related illnesses, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

We suffer financially as well. A recent report from Georgetown University estimates the cost of those food-related illnesses to be $152 billion annually. It seems beyond dispute that we need to overhaul the way food is handled and distributed in America, and the most positive thing about this bill is that both sides of the aisle agree.

Until the late 1800s, there were no government agencies to regulate food safety on any level. At that time there were few foods being imported and no large factory farms, but there were still plenty of inherent dangers at mealtime. In the days before refrigeration, putrefaction of many foods was commonplace, and suppliers were dumping a variety of chemicals into the food supply to prevent or cover up the decay. In 1906, the first Food and Drugs Act was passed -- banning interstate shipment of those potentially harmful rations, and the USDA Bureau of Chemistry (now the FDA) was created to enforce the law. (Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, the chemist hired as head of the new organization, quit in 1912 when he could no longer take all of the bureaucracy. He spent the rest of his life as an activist attacking government food policy, and as head of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, advocating for pure food and drugs).

In terms of the globalization of the food system, importers will now be required to "perform food safety verification activities" to ensure that "imported foods are as safe as those manufactured in the United States," and inspections are set to double in 2012. However, importers who are currently complying with "existing seafood, juice and low-acid canned food* regulations are exempted," which seem like a dangerously free inspection pass to some of the biggest suppliers.

On the domestic front, there is also funding for increased inspections of food related facilities. This sounds excellent until you read the bill and realize that it means an inspection of a "high risk facility" only once in up to five years after the bill is passed into law, and only once every three years thereafter. In our very recent history, we have had severe food related illnesses and deaths from consuming, among other items, peanut butter and eggs. We learned that the filthy, contaminated plants that were responsible had either never been inspected, or perhaps had been looked at and even cited for multiple violations, but not revisited. It is shocking to realize that these potentially toxic plants were left unmonitored, but not all that comforting to know that now they will be checked only once in up to the next five years. This severely limited inspection schedule is a compromise -- the original House bill called for once a year inspection of high-risk facilities. By the way, a facility considered "low risk" is to be inspected once in up to seven years.

The FDA will now be allowed to do a mandatory recall of tainted food "when a company fails to voluntarily recall the contaminated product upon FDA's request." Although a company not complying with a mandatory recall is rare, if it should occur, how many people will become ill or even die during that time lapse? Why not give the FDA immediate and primary authority over a poisoned food supply?

In 1931, the FDA was separated from the USDA. That is why the name of this bill is The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. It only affects that agency, which is responsible for the safety of cosmetics, drugs, tobacco and all food except animal foods. Last year Cargill's American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties were so infected with E.coli bacteria that a children's dance instructor became paralyzed after consuming some of the meat. As it turned out, the patties contained ground beef from Nebraska, Texas, South Dakota and Uruguay, some of which had been treated with ammonia to reduce the numbers of bacteria to non-detectable levels. (Michael Moss. "E.Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection," New York Times, October 4, 2009).

The ammonia trick is reminiscent of 1906, before there were any food laws, and the year a Meat Inspection Act was passed in addition to the Food and Drug act. Perhaps the most important question is how will the safety of our meat and poultry be improved in 2011? Maybe not at all.

A bill called The Food Safety Act should touch on every aspect of our national food safety problems, and do so from a position of strength and empowerment. Hopefully this is a step towards getting that sort of legislation passed. Right now, a nation hungry for change has been given half a loaf of factory-produced white bread, with all the health benefits that implies.

*Foods that contain too little natural acid to prevent botulism unless adequately processed are termed low-acid, for example, canned beans.