A new report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council recommends that the federal government establish a centralized food safety data and analysis center and develop a specialized food safety inspections workforce.
Ultimately, the research groups recommend that all food safety activities be centralized into a single, dedicated agency.
The report pointed to the growing number of food recalls and confirmed that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for overseeing the safety of 80% of the nation's food supply, is falling short in that mission due to "impediments to efficient use of its limited resources and a piecemeal approach to gathering and using information on risks."
According to government and expert estimates, there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness in the country each year, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths and costing more than $150 billion, PricewaterhouseCoopers recently noted.
The FDA needs to implement a "risk-based approach" in which data and expertise are marshaled to pinpoint where within the production, distribution and handing chains there is the greatest potential for contamination, says the report, to enable a focus on resources on high-risk areas and identifying problems before they turn into widespread outbreaks.
Many of the IOM report's recommendations -- including registration of food manufacturing facilities and mandatory prevention measures and FDA recall authority -- are already included in the Food Safety Modernization Act, one version of which is awaiting a Senate vote. If Senate passage occurs, the legislation would be sent to the conference committee to reconcile the differences between this bill and one passed last summer by the House.
The Modernization Act would represent the most significant changes in food safety regulation since the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938.
The report drew praise from most consumer advocacy groups, with the exception of its recommendation that more responsibility for food processing facilities inspections be shifted to the states.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a statement lauding most of the recommendations but stressing that states are already overburdened with inspections of restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and schools and ill-equipped to provide the level of inspection needed. Instead, CSPI advocates the creation of a more efficient federal inspection force, and movement toward a single, unified food safety agency.
Many legislators have called for swift Senate passage of the Modernization Act, which has bipartisan support.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association also supports the legislation, although it and the Chamber of Commerce threatened to withdraw their support if the bill included a proposed amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would ban use of bisphenol A (BPA) in food and beverage containers. The FDA is currently re-reviewing BPA, a chemical used in some plastics, and the National Institutes of Health is conducting a $30 million study on the safety of low-level exposure to the chemical, according to Food Safety News.
The Senate bill includes amendments intended to address some of the concerns of small farmers, who fear that they will be overburdened by the regulations.
Some organic gardeners have maintained on the Internet and social media that the Act will criminalize such gardening. However, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the sponsor of the House version (H.R. 875), told the Huffington Post that "this notion that we're destroying backyard farms is absurd," since the bill focuses on monitoring large, industrial food processors.