Tuesday, January 04, 2011

President Obama Signs Historic Food Safety Bill

America's food safety system joins the 21st century a decade late, with broad new regulatory powers for FDA...
On Tuesday, hours after returning from an eleven-day vacation in Hawaii, President Obama signed into law H.R. 2751, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a $1.4 billion measure that modernizes the Nation's food safety system to better prevent foodborne illness and better respond to disease outbreaks. The President signed the legislation at about 5:00 PM ET in the Oval Office, using fifteen different pens to enact the sweeping revamp of America's food safety system, the first since the 1930s. (Above: President Obama signing the bill)

"I applaud President Obama and the Administration for making food safety a priority," said pre-eminent foodborne disease expert Bill Marler, of Seattle's Marler Clark law firm. "America's food safety system can now begin the process of joining the 21st century."

Since President Obama took office, there have been repeated and massive ("voluntary") recalls of foods, for everything from salmonella-tainted peanut butter, to more than a half billion salmonella-tainted eggs, to E. coli-laced beef. Each year, about 3,000 citizens die from tainted food, with more than 48 million becoming ill, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. The bill signing was much anticipated by survivors and family members of those killed by foodborne disease, by food safety advocates, food industry representatives, by farmers and growers and processors, and by the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that battled for its passage. But the President's bill signing was closed to press and guests.

The science-based and prevention-oriented bill received final Congressional approval on Dec. 21, 2010, after more than eighteen months of battle. It is a broad expansion of the power of the federal government to regulate food and agriculture, and sets in motion potentially dramatic improvements to the security and safety of America’s food supply. It empowers FDA for the first time to make mandatory recalls of tainted foods, and gives the Agency a congressional mandate for risk-based inspection of food processing facilities. It also significantly enhances FDA’s ability to oversee the millions of food products that come into the United States each year from foreign countries.

“Shifting from a reactive to a preventive mode is something that we are committed to doing,’’ FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said on Monday. “Congress has clearly given us the mandate to take that on, industry wants to work with us.’’

According to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, under the new law, the federal government will now be able to assure consumers that “sea bass from Chile’’ meets the same safety standards “as lobster that we get out of the shores of Maine.’’

The legislation has a long time frame to get up to speed; for instance, new regulations for produce growers and processors will not be released by FDA for at least a year.

The food safety bill was just one among thirty-five different pieces of legislation the President put his signature on today. It awaits Congressional funding, after the 112th Congress begins on January 5th. Various members of the GOP have pledged to ensure this effort falls short of the bill's price tag. Via Twitter on Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the incoming chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced his "initial oversight investigations lineup," and included "the safety of American food/medicine and effectiveness of @FDArecalls." Issa has called FDA "a broken bureaucracy." (Above: Staff Secretary Lisa Jackson in action organizing the stack of 35 bills the President signed)

Related: Click here for a summary of the legislation. Hamburg and Sebelius discuss the bill.

See also: Upcoming Obama food & Ag initiatives for 2011

*Photos by Pete Souza/White House