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With Senate vote, FDA embraces slow(er) food movement

Gardiner Harris and William Neuman’s report in the New York Times at the Senate vote approving new food inspection powers for the Food and Drug Administration hints at a key question: how will the FDA manage its new responsibilities?  The change, which now must be approved in the House, is significant:

The bill is intended to keep unsafe foods from reaching markets and restaurants, where they can make people sick — a change from the current practice, which mainly involves cracking down after outbreaks occur.

As a result, the FDA will gain new powers to inspect sources of food products overseas and in the U.S.  It will be able to “recall tainted foods, increase inspections, [and] demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming.”

But changing the culture at FDA will be hard. Until yesterday, the expectation was mostly that the food industry would police itself and live up to decent standards because it was good for business.  This same expectation guided officials at the Minerals Management Service (now BOEMRE) who didn’t bother to check on safety standards before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.  The same hopes for industry self-policing are still, to a great extent, at work at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The FDA and other government agencies won’t be able to uncover every potential danger, so the role of reporters and other people who know of problems on the ground will be essential.  Even a ramped-up inspections regime can’t replace the role of citizens who know of dangers and want to see them addressed — before someone gets sick or dies again because a company cared more about the bottom line than the health of its customers and employees.  Local feedback could be the key to feeding safely.

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