Food safety bill becomes law in U.S.

A food safety bill in the U.S. that will affect most of the produce Canadians consume has been signed into law by President Barack Obama.

A food safety bill in the U.S. that will affect most of the produce Canadians consume has been signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The new U.S. food safety bill will affect Canadians because 80 per cent of the fresh produce eaten in Canada comes from the U.S. ((Al Behrman/Associated Press))

The legislation gives the government new powers to increase inspections at food-processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted products. It's the first major overhaul of the U.S. food safety system since the 1930s.

Canadians are affected by the bill because 80 per cent of the fruit and vegetables eaten in this country is imported from the U.S., said Richard Holley, a professor of food safety and microbiology at the University of Manitoba.

"On the surface it looks pretty good, but the dependence that it places upon enhanced inspection may not generate the level of safety that the average consumer in the United States and Canada would like to see," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"We in general as consumers in North America ... feel that a regulator can inspect safety into food, and a regulator can't," he said.

Legislation to double number of inspectors

Under the bill the number of food inspectors in the U.S. will be doubled. But the $1.4 billion needed to enact the changes isn't guaranteed, and may be in jeopardy, as Republicans gain control of the House when Congress returns on Wednesday.

"I think we'll look very carefully at the funding before we support $1.4 billion," said Representative Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia who hopes to become chair of the House appropriations committee.

Holley told CBC News that even if the number of inspectors is doubled, it won't make a significant difference in food safety.

"When you take a look at it in reality you've got a level of inspection of about one per cent, so double that and you still have 98 per cent of the time food is being processed where it isn't being inspected," he said.

"That is where we're getting a false sense of security as consumers, by thinking that inspection is going to put it to industry and make sure that every ounce of food that's produced is safe, and that's just not the way it is."

About 6,000 truckloads of fresh produce are imported to Canada from the U.S. every day.

Law will make producers more accountable

The new law requires larger farms and food manufacturers to prepare detailed food safety plans and tell the FDA how they are striving to keep their food safe at different stages of production.

About 6,000 truckloads of fresh produce from the United States is delivered to Canadian grocery stores every day. ((iStock))

It also emphasizes prevention to help stop outbreaks before they happen. The recent salmonella and E. coli outbreaks exposed the FDA's lack of resources and authority as it struggled to trace and contain the contaminated products.

The agency rarely inspects most food facilities and farms, visiting some about once a decade and others not at all.

Soon after taking office in 2009, Obama promised to make food safety overhaul a priority. At the time, a widespread outbreak of salmonella in peanuts dominated headlines. At least nine people died as a result and hundreds more fell ill.

Many major food companies also support the bill, recognizing that safe food is good for business.   

The new law:

  • Allows the FDA to order a recall of tainted food. Currently it can only negotiate with businesses for voluntary recalls.
  • Requires the agency to develop new safety regulations for producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables.
  • Increases inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities; the riskiest domestic facilities would be inspected every three years.
  • Requires farms and processors to keep records to help the government trace recalled foods.

The new law does not extend to meat, poultry or processed eggs, which are regulated by the Agriculture Department, and are subjected to more rigorous inspections and oversight than foods regulated by the FDA.

With files from The Associated Press