The Food and Drug Administration on Friday proposed the most sweeping food safety rules in decades, requiring farmers and food companies to be more vigilant in the wake of deadly outbreaks in peanuts, cantaloupe and leafy greens.
The long-overdue regulations are aimed at reducing the estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness. Just since last summer, outbreaks of listeria in cheese and salmonella in peanut butter, mangoes and cantaloupe have been linked to more than 400 illnesses and as many as seven deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The actual number of those sickened is likely much higher.
The FDA's proposed rules would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, to include making sure workers' hands are washed, irrigation water is clean, and that animals stay out of fields. Food manufacturers will have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean.
Many responsible food companies and farmers are already following the steps that the FDA would now require them to take. But officials say the requirements could have saved lives and prevented illnesses in some of the large-scale outbreaks that have hit the country in recent years.
In a 2011 outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe that claimed 33 lives, for example, FDA inspectors found pools of dirty water on the floor and old, dirty processing equipment at the Colorado farm where the cantaloupes were grown. In a peanut butter outbreak this year linked to 42 salmonella illnesses, inspectors found samples of salmonella throughout a New Mexico peanut processing plant and multiple obvious safety problems, such as birds flying over uncovered trailers of peanuts and employees not washing their hands.
Under the new rules, companies would have to lay out plans for preventing those sorts of problems and how they would correct them.
"The rules go very directly to preventing the types of outbreaks we have seen," said Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods.
The new rules come exactly two years to the day President Barack Obama's signed food safety legislation passed by Congress. The 2011 law required the agency to propose a first installment of the rules a year ago, but the Obama administration held them until after the election. Food safety advocates sued the administration to win their release.
In an effort to stave off protests from farmers, the farm rules are tailored to apply only to certain fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest risk, like berries, melons, leafy greens and other foods that are often eaten raw. A farm that produces green beans that will be canned and cooked, for example, would not be regulated.
None of the proposed regulations would take effect until after a 120-day comment period. The FDA also is giving the farmers ample time beyond that to comply. Larger farms wouldn't be regulated for more than two years; smaller farms would have even more time.
The farm and manufacturing rules are only one part of the food safety law. The bill also authorized more surprise inspections by the FDA and gave the agency additional powers to shut down food facilities. In addition, the law required stricter standards on imported foods. The agency said it will soon propose other overdue rules to ensure that importers verify overseas food is safe and to improve food safety audits overseas.
Food safety advocates frustrated over the last year as the rules stalled praised the proposed action.
"The new law should transform the FDA from an agency that tracks down outbreaks after the fact, to an agency focused on preventing food contamination in the first place," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.