[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

A recent string of highly-publicized food recalls have caused many Americans to question the safety of our food production system. From peanut butter to eggs, numerous everyday foods have caused salmonella and E. Coli outbreaks. Many activists, nutritionists and policy makers have been calling for the government to make some real strides in improving food safety.

In 2009, the House passed their food safety bill, the Food Safety Enhancement Act. Shortly thereafter, a companion bill was proposed in the Senate, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. It has been stalled since late 2009, held up by corporate interests and senators who question the economic viability of the bill.

But finally, on November 17, the Senate will bring the Food Safety Modernization Act to the floor. Food Safety News credits Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for pushing the bill forward. Given that the House's companion legislation passed by a wide margin, some are optimistic that this bipartisan bill will pass easily as well—perhaps by the end of the week. Once the bill passes, two senators will go to committee with House representatives and work out any discrepancies among the two bills.

So, What Does this Act Even Do?

While the details are somewhat convoluted, a few major goals can be extracted from the bill's full text. For one, the bill would require more frequent inspections of "high risk" food processing plants. It would necessitate communication between the FDA and USDA to produce a comprehensive recall strategy.

And perhaps most importantly, it would grant the FDA full recall authority. Currently whether a food is recalled is determined by the food producer—this bill would put recall power into the hands of the FDA.

Currently, a panel of experts is engaged in a lively debate on Grist about the efficacy and implementability of this bill. The panelists bring up a number of problems with the legislation as it's written. One advocate notes that said "high risk" factories will still only be inspected once every five to seven years. Another highlights that this bill avoids the underlying cause of much food-borne illness, such as poor conditions for farm animals.

Overall, this act seems like a decent first step towards improving food safety in sweeping strokes. There will not be enough factory inspections to eliminate food recalls, and surely bureaucracy will interfere with the bill's implementation. But the act has been written in response to an American outcry against an unsafe food system. At the very least it indicates that the government is responsive to a sickened public, and could potentially pave the way for future improvements.

About the author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.


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