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U.S. Opinions: Philadelphia

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New food safety rules are better late than never

From an editorial published Thursday in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed the most sweeping changes in food safety rules in decades. The changes being made under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which became law in 2011, are long overdue and should be implemented as soon as possible.

If adopted, the new rules would require farmers to take common-sense precautions against food contamination by making sure workers wash their hands, irrigation water is clean, and animals are kept out of fruit and vegetable fields. Also, a food safety plan would be required for food manufacturers as evidence that efforts are being made to keep their operations clean.

Abiding by the new rules could cost large farms about $30,000 a year and manufacturers up to $475 million annually, the FDA said. The changes also should help the FDA operate much better, taking it from an agency that reacts to food crises to a proactive operation that can prevent contamination from occurring.

Toward that end, Congress must adequately fund the agency so it can provide better oversight under the new regulations and better protect consumers from foods that make them sick. The proposed regulations come in the aftermath of a rash of recent deadly outbreaks linked to peanuts, cantaloupes, and leafy greens.

Every year, there are an estimated 3,000 deaths from food-borne illnesses. One in six Americans becomes ill from eating contaminated food each year, and nearly 130,000 require hospitalization, according to government estimates.

The new rules could prevent nearly two million illnesses annually, according to the FDA. But, unfortunately, that might take several years. It could take the FDA a year just to craft the new regulations. Larger farms would then have two years to comply, with small farms being given even more time. That seems too long when people’s health is at stake.

The proposed regulations might be closer to implementation had not the FDA dragged its feet after President Obama signed the food safety act on Jan. 4, 2011. The legislation passed by Congress required the FDA to propose initial rules a year ago. But food safety advocates were forced to sue the administration to get the proposals released.

Many food companies and farmers already practice the food safety steps that would become mandatory. The farm rules would apply only to those fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest risk, which should appease farmers.

The FDA also needs to swiftly draft rules regulating food grown or made overseas. People should have confidence that what they eat won’t make them sick.

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