Prevention Matters More Than Peanuts

Publication: Santa Fe New Mexican

Author: Sandra Eskin

12/22/2012 - ''The people of New Mexico are justifiably proud, in the words of the state’s official website, of “everything our state has to offer — from breathtaking sunsets to fabulous local cuisine.”

But food must be more than great tasting. It also has to be safe.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, each year, 48 million Americans — 1 in 6 — are sickened by a food-borne illness, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees 80 percent of America’s food supply. Recently, it shut down a peanut manufacturing plant in Portales, because it was the apparent source of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella infections that sickened at least 42 people.

This is not about New Mexico, though; the outbreak could have started anywhere. But the FDA’s action illustrates the agency’s new authority to respond quickly and decisively under the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act — passed with bipartisan support and signed by President Barack Obama two years ago this month. This important legislation is the largest overhaul of our nation’s food safety system since the Great Depression.

Prior to passage of this act, the agency did not have the power to adequately protect the public from food-borne illnesses. The threat posed by these bacteria was well understood, but the legislation took on new urgency in 2008-2009, when tainted peanut products sickened more than 700 Americans in 46 states. Nine victims died.

Driven in part by this outbreak, Congress and President Obama worked to move the act forward. The president noted that his youngest daughter, Sasha, enjoys peanut butter sandwiches. “At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act should ease all parents’ concerns. The law grants the FDA more enforcement tools and greater authority to prevent — not just react to — food-borne outbreaks.

But the legislation is not enough. The Obama administration urgently needs to issue proposed rules that are needed to fully implement the new food safety law. Almost 35,000 Americans signed a petition urging the White House to release the draft regulations.

These rules are necessary and overdue. Just since the law passed, the CDC has identified 15 multistate food-borne outbreaks linked to the FDA-regulated products. Hundreds were made sick, including 20 New Mexicans who became ill from dangerous bacteria in papayas, cantaloupes, cheese — and peanut butter.

Once the new regulations are in place, the FDA will have the tools it needs to save lives, reduce risks and give consumers greater confidence that the food they eat is safe. The time has come to release the draft food-safety rules, and make sure the people of New Mexico — and all Americans — can look to the FDA not only to shut down companies selling tainted food but also to do everything possible to prevent food-borne illnesses before they begin.''

Sandra Eskin is the director of the Food Safety Campaign at the Pew Health Group.

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