States, Feds See Food Safety Roles Differently

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Outbreaks of illnesses from contaminated food helped spur enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by Congress and signed by the president in January 2011.

The law focuses on preventing outbreaks, instead of reacting to them, and changes many of the regulatory structures designed to protect the public from food-borne illnesses. The main thrust of the law, however, is to update the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's authority to regulate foods. Previously, FDA acted only after a food-related illness outbreak. The new law allows the FDA to design measures to prevent food-borne outbreaks from occurring by regulating the food industry.

"FSMA will have a significant impact on states," says Joe Reardon, an FDA official and former food program director of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. "It will create a federal-state partnership to build an integrated food safety system."

FDA officials see one of their roles as guiding small businesses through new food safety requirements. "If we want to ensure that our food is safer, we need to be able to invest in compliance," says Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, FDA commissioner of food and drugs. "We need to help educate and train industry--especially small businesses--through guidance documents that address the real-world issues companies face in trying to abide by the rules."

The federal law created some tension between the federal government and the states, however. Lawmakers in Delaware, Hawaii, North Carolina and Utah have introduced legislation to protect the states' role in food safety. Many state lawmakers also see it as their role to help small businesses deal with food safety regulations.

"We want to adopt our own food safety rules before they are dictated by FDA," says Hawaii Senator Clarence Nishihara (D), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. Bills before his committee this session would require a certification program for producers and ensure a trace-back ability to identify where a product comes from when someone becomes ill.

An amendment was added to the federal food safety law to ensure small businesses are protected, exempting them from the extensive requirements imposed upon large food manufacturers and processors.

Food facilities that sell only within their state--or within 275 miles of their facility--and have less than $500,000 in annual sales are exempt from the new federal law, as is food produced on a farm and sold directly to the consumer, including at local farmers' markets. …