When Congress shut down for its summer recess, it left some U.S. companies with plenty of food for thought. A bill introduced in late July by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) would place a host of additional burdens on those who process, package, ship, store, and distribute domestic and imported foods.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 3385) would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to strengthen the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's powers to manage food safety and enforce standards. The bill's sponsors say the measure is a response to a string of foodcontamination incidents that have caused thousands of illnesses and a number of deaths across the country.
Among the bill's many provisions are proposals to allow the FDA to set more stringent safety standards for produce (including commodity-specific standards); increase the frequency of inspections of all facilities that package, process, store, and handle food; and issue a mandatory product recall if a company fails to do so when requested by the agency. It also would require the secretary of the FDA to pilot a more effective system for tracking and tracing fruits and vegetables back through the chain of custody. Food-handling facilities and importers would have to register with the FDA every two years. They would also have to evaluate potential hazards, such as bacteria and toxins, and implement preventive controls.
Those and most of the bill's other provisions clearly will affect domestic warehouses and distribution centers that handle food products. But food importers would face still more mandates. They would have to obtain certification from authorities in exporting countries that high-risk food imports meet U.S. safety standards. They would also be required to verify the safety of both the food they import and the overseas producer. Food from countries that do not permit U.S. inspection prior to export would be refused entry. But the bill does throw a smallish bone to the newly burdened importers: Those who voluntarily exceed minimum safety standards may qualify for expedited import processing.
At press time, the bill was awaiting consideration by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. With presidential elections looming, the bill seems unlikely to progress much further, if at all, before time runs out on the 110th Congress. It could be reintroduced in the next congressional session, but at this point, its fate remains unclear.