With the rash of recalls in recent years: eggs, peanut butter, even spinach, it is difficult to feel confident in our nation’s food supply. Our top Chicago injury attorneys understand that under the current food safety regime, there is good reason to be nervous. And although lawsuits are a useful and valid tool after an outbreak has occurred, there is no substitute for preventing food-contamination outbreaks in the first place. Unfortunately, while America once made great strides in constantly increasing food safety, that trend has ceased and even reversed in the past decade.
Much of the problem lies with the lack of true regulatory oversight. The various component parts involved in overseeing and maintaining food safety are split between a large number of different federal departments and regulatory agencies. And the FDA has chosen to focus almost entirely on overseeing the safety of medicines and medical devices – a highly important task – to such an extent that many in our society and government have forgotten that the “F” in “FDA” stands for food.
But as this legislative session draws to a close, Democrats and Republicans have come together in a rare show of bipartisanship to pass important legislation that will enhance our nation’s food safety and supply.
The status of the legislation is still unclear, as the House and Senate have passed slightly different versions of the legislation that have not yet been reconciled. However, due to the extensive similarities between the House and Senate versions, the strong bipartisan support the legislation enjoys, and the backing of President Obama, our products liability lawyers believe that it is only a matter of time until the bill becomes law.
Unfortunately, this bill will do nothing to consolidate the scattered food safety functions into a single federal department or agency. Still, the bill is a giant step forward. The primary strength of the bill is the new strength it grants to the FDA – increasing the number of inspections the FDA must conduct, and providing the funding to make those inspections a reality. The FDA would also be given the authority, for the first time, to oversee farming, and to demand instead of request recalls of tainted products.
The legislation also addresses the rapidly-growing problem of the safety of food imports. Although we often think of food as being domestically grown and produced, the truth is that a shocking proportion of the foods Americans eat originates overseas. Around twenty percent of our nation’s food, and over thirty percent of its seafood, is imported. And while the manufacture and growth of foodstuffs is often far less regulated overseas, imported food receives very little inspection under current law.
Indeed, the FDA currently conducts an inspection of less than one pound of food for each million pounds that are imported. With that rate of review, it is surprising that even more food problems have not occurred.
The new legislation would significantly improve the oversight of imported food. Not only would inspections of imported food increase, but the legislation would also give the FDA the power to inspect foreign processing plants themselves. And, perhaps most importantly, it would allow the FDA to set standards for how food must be grown and processed if it is to be imported into the United States.
No one, including the experienced products liability lawyers of Passen & Powell, believes that the new food safety legislation will single-handedly fix the nation’s food safety problems. Even after this legislation takes effect, there will still be outbreaks and recalls such as we have seen in recent years. But there will be fewer outbreaks, fewer recalls, and fewer deaths.
Although he may be overconfident in the power of legislation, perhaps Senator Tom Harkin, (D) Iowa, the chairman of the Senate’s health committee and a key supporter of this legislation, put it best: “This legislation means that parents who tell their kids to eat their spinach can be assured that it won’t make them sick.”
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago products liability lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.