Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Obama Signs Historic Food Safety Law: Will It Make Dinner Safer?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Obama Signs Historic Food Safety Law: Will It Make Dinner Safer?

Article excerpt

The food safety law aims to secure the farm-to-table food chain. But some Republicans are threatening to hold up funding, saying the food supply is already '99.999 percent safe.'

A historic food safety law signed by President Obama Tuesday was sold as a way to save lives and some $152 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity from food-borne illnesses - in return for a $1.4 billion taxpayer investment over five years.

But calling the US food chain already "99.999 percent safe," some incoming House Republicans say the price tag may be too high. The Congressional passage of the law was seen as a defeat for the anti- deficit tea party, which helped elect a 40-member contingent of lawmakers who have vowed to take on the food safety bill as part of a larger gambit to dismantle parts of the Obama agenda, including health-care reform.

As a result of several high-profile outbreaks of illnesses linked to eggs and sprouts and other foodstuffs in recent years, a majority of the American public wants improved food safety, polls say, a fact reflected in the bipartisan passage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act through Congress late last year.

Food Safety Act: five food recalls that rattled the industry

Yet media hype fueling recent recalls of eggs and sprouts sometimes under-reports a reality: While the number of food-borne illness outbreaks have more than tripled in the last 20 years, from 100 in 1991 to 350 in 2010, the numbers of Americans who get sick every year has stayed level. "Things don't seem to be getting worse" but there has been "no significant improvement," according to a just- published analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by Glenn Morris, a University of Florida researcher.

In that light, some incoming Republican House appropriators are openly questioning whether spending billions to improve an already safe food chain makes sense at a time when many Americans are demanding that Washington start work on paying down the country's $14 trillion debt.

"While it's a great reelection tool to terrify people into thinking that the food they're eating is unsafe and unsanitary, and if not for the wonderful nanny-state politicians we'd be getting sick after every meal, the system we have is doing a darn good job," Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who's vying to become chair of a key subcommittee to the House appropriations panel, tells Bloomberg News.

Food-borne illnesses are responsible for some 3,000 deaths in the US each year and affect up to 48 million Americans, but the newly- signed law would take time, even if fully-funded, to impact those statistics, says Drew Falkenstein, a Seattle attorney who blogs about food safety.

Exemptions limit impact

In other ways, it may have no effect at all. For example, the most recent illness outbreak, involving salmonella-laced sprouts at a popular chain of sub shops, would likely not have been affected under the new law, since the small sprout farm at the root of the problem is exempt under the new law. …

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