This week, the Food and Drug Administration has finalized the most extensive food safety rules in 50 years, meaning U.S. food manufacturers will need to come up with detailed plans to prevent foodborne illnesses that sicken millions of Americans every year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 48 million Americans every year get sick from foodborne illness, that’s one in six of us. The problem, says Cornell’s Randy Worobo, is some companies lack the training or sophistication to address problems that crop up.
“We are all prone to making mistakes. Unfortunately, some companies, when they make the mistake, it just snowballs,” he says.
In this case, that means people get hospitalized; 3,000 a year even die. The new FDA regulations, ideas that have been around since the Kennedy administration, require companies to identify hazards, come up with action plans and document it all.
“It’s not something that should be so onerous for any company that they can’t handle the impact of it,” says Brian Todd with the trade group the Food Institute.
Federal officials put the cost of compliance at about $380 million for an industry that generates about $1.1 trillion in retail food sales.
This may be money well spent for food producers, if only because it may leave their customers feeling more confident about the food they eat. Many companies already have these rules in place, and they’re doing the trick, says attorney Bill Marler.
“In the ’90s, 90 percent of my law firm’s revenue was E. coli cases linked to hamburger. That’s now zero,” he says.
Marler says safer food means companies don’t have to worry about $100 million recalls and class action lawsuits. The question now is whether Congress will give the FDA what it needs to enforce the new rules. The Senate and House are proposing less than half of what the regulators have requested to improve food safety.