Challenges of modernizing hallmark food safety laws

Earlier this week, we wished a happy 106th birthday to the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, both of which were signed into law on June 30, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. While commemorating the history of these laws is important, so is looking ahead and thinking about what the future holds for the important institutions created by these landmark pieces of legislation.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law on January 4, 2011 by President Obama, is an example of the positive ways in which legislation can be modernized. FSMA would transform the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from an agency which merely responds to foodborne illnesses to one which actively works to prevent them. Unfortunately, this law is facing two major challenges to its implementation.

The first challenge facing FSMA is the current budget climate. With vastly increased responsibilities, FDA needs a corresponding increase in funding. However, in an era of fiscal austerity, government agencies across the board face funding cuts. This means FDA must do more with less, leaving the agency to make tough decisions about priorities. The inevitable result of this process of prioritization is that some things will slip through the cracks.

The second challenge facing FDA is the job of actually implementing the new law, a task which requires the release of many new regulations according to a time table. Four of these important rules, dealing with preventative controls (for both human food and animal feed), the foreign supplier verification program and produce safety, were due to be released in January. As of the writing of this blog post, these essential rules are being held up at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House. Because these rules are integral to the implementation of FSMA, food safety advocates have been joined by the industry in urging OMB to release the rules immediately. Without these rules, FSMA enactment is essentially stalled.

While FSMA seeks to modernize the FDA by improving and expanding the government’s role in keeping food safe, a proposed rule recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) entitled “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection,” would roll back the government’s role in keeping our food safe. If the proposed rule was enacted, some inspection duties, traditionally performed by trained government inspectors, would be transferred to plant employees who are under no training requirement. Additionally, the new program would decrease the number of federal inspectors on the line while simultaneously increasing allowable line speeds to 175 birds per minute. The practical result is that while inspectors had been examining one bird every three seconds, they would now be inspecting three birds every second. This increase in line speeds is a concern not only for food safety but also for workers. Both consumer and labor organization have called for USDA to back away from its proposal.

Today the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act face challenges of modernization. Modernization must be accompanied by sound science and must above all be free from political considerations. Modernization will require the teamwork of all the stakeholders involved. Consumers especially must let their elected officials know that these laws, the agencies they created and the continuation of the protections they provide are essential aspects of any modernization scheme.


Happy 106th birthday to two landmark food safety laws!

This week marks the 106th anniversary of the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, two landmark pieces of consumer based legislation which established the modern food protection system as we know it.  Without these two important pieces of legislation, our food system in this country would be virtually unrecognizable. It is these pieces of legislation which provide the basic framework for food safety in this country. Founded in 1899 as an organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of both workers and consumers, the National Consumers League, led by Florence Kelley, played a major part in getting these two important pieces of legislation passed.

Spurred by chilling descriptions of the horrible conditions common in meat-packing plants that Upton Sinclair described in his seminal work The Jungle, published in 1905, Congress passed the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The law mandated antemortem inspection of livestock, postmortem inspection of each carcass and the continuous inspection of slaughter by U.S. Department of Agriculture employees. The Act also established sanitary standards for slaughtering facilities for the first time. It was this Act which created our modern-day Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which provides inspection in all the slaughterhouses around the country, ensuring that we have safe and wholesome meat to consume.

The Pure Food and Drugs Act, also of 1906, created the modern-day U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though it would not be known by that name until the 1930s. This Act not only established the FDA as we know it, it also made it illegal to sell adulterated and misbranded food and drugs across state lines. For the first time, consumers had legal protection of their right to pure food and drugs.

Though the contemporary USDA and FDA may be different in some ways than they were in the early 20th century due to new laws which have updated the requirements for both agencies, the two laws laid the foundation for agencies focused on consumer protection. It is with pride at our involvement in the establishment of these laws that NCL wishes them a happy 106th birthday!