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Can the FDA get better at food safety?

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Last August, the nonprofits Center for Food Safety and Center for Environmental Health filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration, alleging the agency was taking much too long to formulate rules and failing to implement and enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first U.S. food-safety overhaul in 70 years, which became law nearly two years ago.

In late November, the FDA filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, saying it needed more time to complete the complex process of formulating rules to regulate safety in the $450 billion domestic and imported food business, as Reuters reported.

The lawsuit claims the agency repeatedly missed deadlines for issuing final regulations, and seeks a court order compelling the FDA and the Office of Management and Budget to enforce the laws, which were created to help protect the millions of people sickened annually by foodborne illnesses. Some 3,000 Americans die each year from illnesses contracted from contaminated meat, dairy and produce, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Writer Barry Estabrook leads off his lengthy Nov. 30 piece for OnEarth magazine titled “The FDA is out to Lunch” by telling the story of one such death. Paul Schwarz, 92, was still vital and healthy one fateful Sunday morning when he shared a bowl of fruit with his wife, as he had after church every week for years. That Sunday, the fruit bowl included cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado. Weeks later, Schwarz was dead from bacterial meningitis he contracted from the melon, which was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Death came after weeks of physical pain and mental deterioration, Estabrook reports.

He details other cases of foodborne illness outbreaks and the devastation they can bring, many of which could have been avoided if the FDA took stronger action, he writes.

Just days after Reuters reported on the FDA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the agency said  it had ordered the shutdown of Portales, N.M.-based Sunland’s nut-processing facility, which was responsible for a salmonella outbreak tied to peanut butter from Trader Joe’s that sickened 42 people in 20 states. It’s the first such action under the new law, and it came after tests showed salmonella in the peanuts and the plant. Sunland has recalled 240 products in the past two years.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest lauded the action and said it’s a positive sign for food-safety advocates, but others worry that the agency is dragging its feet on other, more long-term safety issues. Last week, another lawsuit alleged the FDA is holding up key public health research into whether the overuse of antibiotics in food animals is affecting the ability of the drugs to fight disease in humans. The Government Accountability Project filed the suit, saying FDA officials refused to provide Johns Hopkins researchers with the data they need on the sale of antibiotics for use on farm animals, Food Safety News reported.

Are you confident about the safety of the food served at your restaurant? Tell us about it in the comments.