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Food safety is coming to the forefront this year as new legislation is creating major improvements to the security and safety of the food supply.

President Obama this week signed “one of the most expansive food regulation bills in living memory,” the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA), effectively creating a new arm of the Food & Drug Administration that will allow the agency to actively attempt to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses instead of simply responding to them.

Around 5,000 people a year die from outbreaks, however 76 million people get sick from eating contaminated food each year in the United States.

The goal of the new bill is to actively prevent such outbreaks from occurring, and that begins with holding food companies and manufacturers accountable for any contamination of their products as well as inspecting domestic and imported food on a regular basis. In addition, the FDA will finally be able to force recalls of contaminated food. All recalls to date have been voluntary.

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There was a fear farms would feel the federal pinch. But there is an amendment in the bill that exempts smaller farms in a couple of ways. One is farms that sell their products within a 275-mile radius and the other says if they make less than $500,000 annually in sales they will not have to comply with the new FSMA.

Food companies will start spending larger sums of money in areas such as records retention and preparation as well as legal counsel on new standard operating procedures and to advise the companies if or when the FDA wants access to those records or their facilities.

The idea of prevention is not new, said Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. is the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. FDA has established prevention-oriented standards and rules for seafood, juice, and eggs, as has the U.S. Department of Agriculture for meat and poultry, and many in the food industry have pioneered “best practices” for prevention. What is the recognition that, for all the strengths of the American food system, a breakdown at any point on the farm-to-table spectrum can cause catastrophic harm to the health of consumers and great disruption and economic loss to the food industry, she said.

So, we need to look at the food system as a whole, be clear about the food safety responsibility of all of its participants, and strengthen accountability for prevention throughout the entire food system – domestically and internationally, she said.

Processors of all types of food will now be required to evaluate the hazards in their operations, implement and monitor effective measures to prevent contamination, and have a plan in place to take any corrective actions that are necessary. Also, FDA will have much more effective enforcement tools for ensuring those plans are adequate and properly implemented, including mandatory recall authority when needed to swiftly remove contaminated food from the market, Hamburg said.

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