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Sick to Your Stomach? Try This

New federal rules for egg production went into effect last month--too late, it turns out, to prevent a major salmonella outbreak that has already sickened 1,500 people. But even with those rules in place, the food supply isn’t as safe as most of us would prefer.

Eggs, after all, aren’t the only source of food poisoning these days. And rules don’t usually help without enforcement--better enforcement, at least, than the government has provided lately.

But another, much bigger change is on the horizon. Maybe.

In July, 2009, the House overwhelmingly passed a sweeping bill to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration. A few months later, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee unanimously passed a similar bill and, just this month, its leaders released a “manager’s amendment” with a few compromises that should allow the full Senate to consider the proposal.

Sources in and around Capitol Hill say Senate will do just that in September--and that, at the moment, the votes to pass the bill are there. Still, it’s far from a done deal, in part because the Senate has such a full docket already and time is running out.

Let’s hope it doesn’t. Based on what I've read and heard from people working on this issue, the bill would give FDA considerably more power to regulate food, starting with the ability to seize and/or demand recalls of suspect or tainted food--authority, remarkably, the agency doesn’t have now. “We can recall a car, we can recall a toy, but the FDA can’t recall food,” says Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The bill would also allow the FDA to take much swifter enforcement action, like suspending registration (which is the federal equivalent of a license) for facilities with histories of violations. The bill would, as I understand it, require “mandatory minimum inspection” of food producers deemed high-risk--and it would give the FDA broader access to company records. Again, you might think the FDA could do all of this now. Again, you would be wrong.

Eskin likens the measure to empowering police, so that they can enforce the law: “You can have a speed limit on the books, saying that you can’t travel more than 55 miles per hour, but if there is no cop sitting on the road, it is meaningless,” Eskin says. “This bill gives the FDA the tools it needs.” Every advocate and expert I consulted about this--about a half-dozen in all--said basically the same thing.

Consider what might have happened with those tainted eggs if the FDA already had these powers. It is likely the FDA would have inspected the plant regularly under the new law, given the history of salmonella contamination eggs. (The people I consulted suggested that would be enough to make egg production a "high-risk" enterprise.) Also, the company would have been required to identify potential sources of contamination--and demonstrate how it would mitigate those dangers. If contamination nevertheless took place, the FDA would have been able to track it much more quickly and demand an immediate recall, rather then ask the company to do it voluntarily.

Now, even these measures wouldn’t be foolproof. Among other things, the FDA needs the resources to carry out these tasks. And there are a few important differences between the House and the Senate bill. But that’s another story--for another day.