Tuesday, Jun. 23, 2009


As many as 5,000 Americans die and 325,000 are hospitalized each year with food-borne illness caused by bacteria including campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli, which typically contaminate food sources through dirty irrigation water or at processing plants. But powerful industry opposition — from lobbying groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Frozen Food Institute — has left Congress largely unwilling to toughen oversight of the nation's food supply. That may soon change.

In June 2009, a House subcommittee debated legislation that, if passed, could prompt the most sweeping reform of the nation's food-safety apparatus in the past 50 years. The bill, proposed in part by California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, would for the first time allow the FDA to order, rather than request, food recalls. The bill also would require every food facility in the country to submit to an FDA inspection at least once every four years; high-risk facilities would be inspected every 18 months. For the first time, inspectors would get access to a facility's back records, which would allow for more comprehensive reviews; currently, inspectors must judge a facility based solely on conditions on the day of the inspection. The bill also would require food manufacturers to write and execute safety plans, track the distribution of all food products and pay an annual registration fee of $1,000 to support the FDA inspections.

The fee, which could generate up to $160 million a year, could prove the sticking point to the bill's passage. Republicans have complained repeatedly that it is too high. And despite her support of the legislation, FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg told Congress that the additional revenue from the fees "will, sadly, not be enough to implement those targets."

But Hamburg's FDA appears ready to crack down on what it deems deceptive food packaging. On May 5, 2009, the FDA sent a warning letter to cereal maker General Mills about health claims that have appeared on boxes of Cheerios for two years. The Cheerios box says consumers can "lower your cholesterol 4% in six weeks" — a claim the FDA says can be made only by federally approved and regulated drugs. General Mills said Cheerios' health claims are backed by science and that the FDA has permitted similar language on packaging for 12 years; the company looks "forward to discussing this with the FDA and to reaching a resolution."