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Editorial

Overhaul of U.S. food safety system is overdue

FDA oversight hasn't had a major revision for more than 50 years. Farms are inspected about once a decade; about 1% of imported food is examined. Congress should act now to protect the public.

December 14, 2009

Support for overhauling the nation's food safety system is nearly unanimous. Even the agriculture industry agrees, by and large, that current levels of inspection and tracking by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are inadequate to safeguard the nation's health.

Yet the Senate's understandable immersion in healthcare reform has kept it from taking up the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, and there's a good chance the legislation won't pass before Congress takes its winter break. Once it returns, there will be a limited window of opportunity before the campaign season cranks up.

The American public has waited too long for this legislation. There has been no major revision of the food oversight duties of the FDA, which is responsible for the safety of produce and processed foods, for more than half a century. Food inspections of most farms and processors are conducted once a decade. About 1% of imported food is examined.

A series of food-poisoning scandals has given agribusiness an ugly public image. A list of the recently tainted foods is enough to make the public remember and grimace: lettuce, spinach, cookie dough, peanut butter, salsa.

The House has passed its version of the bill, and the Senate version was approved by committee in November. The legislation has been honed to address the concerns of small farmers and producers. It would step up inspections, especially of the foods most at risk of contamination. It would create better coordination across agencies, begin a pilot food tracking system and authorize the FDA to force recalls of tainted products.

Food poisoning sickens 76 million Americans each year -- that's 50% more than have been stricken with swine flu -- and kills 5,000. Passing the food safety act is another vital way for Congress to protect the public's health.

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