Reporting from Washington — In a world where we get garlic from China, shellfish from Thailand and sugar cane from Mexico, Congress is poised to approve an ambitious food safety bill that would strengthen the nation's top regulator and impose new rules on domestic production and trading partners.
The legislation is aimed at preventing tainted food from entering the supply chain, sickening Americans and forcing massive recalls. It would give the Food and Drug Administration sweeping new powers to demand recalls and require importers to certify the safety of what they're bringing into this country.
By allowing regulators, for instance, to react more quickly to reports of illness, the legislation could limit or prevent recalls like those of spinach and peanuts in recent years, supporters said.
The House is expected to pass the measure Tuesday, sending it to President Obama for his signature.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime update. A lot has changed since 1938," when the current food regulatory regime was established, said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union. "This will put FDA in a posture to prevent food-borne illness before it happens."
The overhaul also would be good for business because "it's going to provide a measure of security and certainty that there's a system in place and bad actors will be weeded out. It's going to save business costly recalls," Gadhia said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said tainted food is responsible for 3,000 deaths and 48 million illnesses a year.
But even with sweeping new powers, federal regulators may be hard-pressed to overcome a challenge that has grown in recent years: Food safety rules have changed little over the last 70 years even as the U.S. food supply has evolved into a global network including foreign growers, producers and processors over whom the United States has little or no direct control.
Today, imported food accounts for about 15% of the nation's food supply by value, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Imports amounted to $76 billion through the first 10 months of this year, a 12% increase over last year and on track to be twice the $41 billion in 1998.
But about 80% of seafood and one-third of fruits and nuts today come from abroad. Foreign sources also account for significant shares of certain ingredients even though the finished product is turned out in the United States. Most cereals, for example, include supplemental vitamins that primarily come from China, which is the third-largest food importer into the U.S. behind Canada and Mexico.
Most of the high-profile recalls in recent years involved problems with domestic producers. But the increasing flow of food from overseas has vastly complicated the challenge of protecting the nation's food supply, and new power to regulate foreign foodstuffs and components of domestically produced products is a crucial part of the pending legislation.
"FDA is able to inspect only about 1% of the food imported into the U.S.," said Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group. "Right now, we don't have a standard for meeting U.S. requirements.
"When this legislation is put in place, we'll have a framework to ensure that food that's imported into the U.S. meets U.S. standards and importers are held accountable," Olson said.
The bill would give the FDA, which is responsible for overseeing about 80% of the nation's food supply, the authority to require domestic food producers to draw up detailed plans to ensure the safety of their products.
Domestic companies also would have to make their records available more quickly to the FDA, and the agency would be directed to inspect production facilities more frequently — a process now so inadequate that many plants are not checked for years at a time.
Businesses that fail inspections or are involved in recalls could be assessed the costs of complying with regulations. Failure to maintain a safety plan could lead to a fine of up to $1,000 and/or one year in prison.
The FDA also would receive a long-sought club to wield against recalcitrant food producers: the power to order recalls itself rather than asking for industry cooperation.
One challenge: The legislation does not come with built-in funding and would require an appropriation of about $1.4 billion over the next five years.
Next year, the spending bill would have to be approved in a House controlled by Republicans, many of whom voted against the original measure. However, the incoming chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), voted in favor of the bill.
Amid growing consumer anxiety about food safety, the industry willingly accepted the new level of government involvement, although some noted that the new law is likely to come with higher costs to producers.
That may hurt smaller farmers in particular who would have to buy new equipment for tracking products and pay higher insurance costs, which are likely to be passed on to consumers.