Food Safety Bill's Passage Seems In The Bag

Nestle-cookie doughCongressional passage of the bipartisan Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 became more likely than ever last week.

On Friday, just two days after the legislation passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee, news broke of the latest in a growing series of contamination scares -- this one involving cookie dough.

Nestle USA voluntarily recalled its Toll House refrigerated cookie dough products after learning that the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control are investigating illnesses linked to consumers eating raw cookie dough contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The FDA, which issued a warning to consumers not to eat any of the refrigerated Toll House products, reported that there have been 66 reports of illness across 28 states since March. No one has died, but 25 people have been hospitalized. Seven experienced a complication called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which "can lead to serious kidney damage and even death," according to the FDA.



"If there was anyone left in America who didn't realize we need to reform the food safety functions at the Food and Drug Administration, this latest recall of Nestle Toll House Cookie Dough provides a sobering wake-up call," the Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement released Friday.

"For too long, the agency has lacked the authority and the resources it needs to inspect food-processing facilities, issue mandatory recalls, and punish violators. Once again, the agency is forced to react after illnesses are already occurring, when the focus should be on preventing contamination in the first place. We urge the House to pass the Food Safety Enhancement Act now."

"The fact that this outbreak was not detected until more than 60 people were ill in 28 states is precisely why we urgently need increased funding for the agencies responsible for public health," said food litigator Marler Clark.

After the bill's approval by the Energy and Commerce Committee, which is chaired by the bill's sponsor, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), Grocery Manufacturers Association president/CEO Pamela G. Bailey reaffirmed GMA's support of the legislation.

"Because consumer confidence is the foundation of everything we do, manufacturers take food safety very seriously and invest their reputations and resources in producing safe products," she said in a statement.

"Our industry is increasing its investment in food safety and is prepared to make additional investments to continually improve the safety of our food supplies. We look forward to working with Congress to swiftly enact food safety legislation that boosts consumer confidence and addresses the challenges posed by today's global and complex food supply."

The House is now expected to vote on the bill prior to its July 4 recess, according to, a site run by food safety defense attorneys.

At this juncture, it is hard to imagine legislators voting against the bill. "Who wants to vote against having safe food?," comments Laura Ries of the Ries & Ries brand consultancy. "That's like voting against clean air."

While food manufacturers and retailers obviously stand to benefit from legislation and initiatives that help restore consumer confidence, messages promoting safety measures by individual marketers would be counterproductive, in Ries' opinion.

"Airlines don't promote safety measures because it would make people think about crashes, and every major airline has had crashes at some point in its history," she says. "Similarly, most people don't think about food safety until there's a problem, and individual companies highlighting safety measures would just serve to raise concerns."

Although products from some of the country's largest food marketers have been involved in recent contamination scares, Ries believes that major brands may be able to differentiate themselves from private-label products and cheaper alternatives by conveying that brands invest in quality and measures such as added safety packaging.

"Of course, you can't just say it -- the brand has to demonstrate its quality and safety to consumers in tangible ways," she stresses.


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