Food processing companies in the U.S. are facing stricter regulations following the implementation of a new federal food safety law in January.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which aims to improve food safety regulations and prevent foodborne illnesses, applies both to domestic and imported production and covers farmers and food processing companies.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are 3,000 deaths in the United Stated every year caused by foodborne illness. Overall, one in six Americans suffers from a foodborne illness every year and almost 130,000 of those victims are hospitalized. Since last summer at least seven people have died and 400 more have been affected by outbreaks of Listeria in cheese and Salmonella in peanut butter, mangoes and cantaloupes, data from the Centers for Disease Control shows. However, the actual number of people who have been sickened by similar outbreaks could be much higher because not all cases have been reported or diagnosed.
Under the proposed new rules, food processing companies will have to prepare food safety plans to be submitted to the government as evidence that operations are up to the standards, as well as monitor their own progress and propose ways to improve operations.
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Many food processors are already voluntarily carrying out these activities, but the FDA wanted to make these steps mandatory as a precaution. According to officials from the agency, some deaths could have been prevented if the recommended steps had been made obligatory years ago. The rules also apply to companies that import food, requiring that they make sure the products are as safe as those produced in the United States.
Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, commented that the new rules are intended to work effectively for preventing outbreaks and protecting human health. He added that the implementation of the regulations might save up to 2 million people who are affected by foodborne illness every year, but claimed that the full effect of the rules would take a few years before outbreaks are actually prevented. Taylor said that the agency might need another year to finalize the rules, following a four-month comment period.
In 2011, a severe outbreak of Listeria in cantaloupes killed 33 people and an FDA investigation found serious failings in ensuring minimum sanitary conditions at Jensen Farms in Colorado where the contaminated cantaloupes were grown. There were puddles of dirty water on the floor and old, poorly-maintained processing equipment. Recently, an outbreak of Salmonella sickened 42 people who had consumed contaminated peanut butter, produced at Sunland Inc.'s peanut processing plant in New Mexico, where FDA inspectors identified multiple food safety problem areas.