Editorial: What Comes First?

Publication: Nature


01/26/2011 - The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law on 4 January, aims to shore up the FDA side of food-safety regulation, giving the agency expanded authority to conduct inspections and to pull contaminated products from the market. The law also expands the government's role in the prevention of food-borne illnesses, rather than simply reacting to outbreaks on a case-by-case basis. Farms and food manufacturers will now be required to identify potential hazards in their manufacturing process — anything from bacterial contamination to metal screws that could fall off equipment and into food — and develop plans to prevent them.

But by the time President Barack Obama had signed the act, some in the House of Representatives were already threatening to drag the new law into the budgetary battle brewing on Capitol Hill. Critics, who include Representative Jack Kingston (Republican, Georgia), the lead Republican on the subcommittee that oversees the FDA's budget, have threatened to underfund the law. They argue that the cost of the regulations — US$1.4 billion over the next five years — outweighs the benefits.

Their sums are short-sighted: the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington DC estimates that food-borne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion a year, not including the cost to industry in lost sales and lawsuits when outbreaks surface. The investment seems a sound strategy.

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Read the editorial What Comes First? in its entirety on Nature's Web site.

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