Monday, November 29 is our last best hope for the Senate to pass food safety reform. That’s something I hope we can be thankful for next week.
Part of the point of Thanksgiving is to appreciate the incredible bounty of foods we enjoy and often take for granted. Imagine what the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock would have thought had they walked into a modern supermarket … filled with an eye-popping variety of exotic fruits and vegetables from all over the world; abundant meat, poultry, and eggs; and what would likely have surprised them the most—the thousands of boxed, canned, and frozen packaged foods to choose from.
But for all of our amazing advances in agriculture and food processing, eating—whether on Thanksgiving or any other day of the week—is still a surprisingly risky undertaking. Despite our heroic crop yields, far-flung transportation networks, and high-tech manufacturing systems, one nut seems hard to crack: keeping deadly germs out of our food.
Foodborne illness exacts a staggering physical and financial toll on Americans. It sends millions of Americans to their sick beds, 300,000 to hospitals, and about 5,000 to their graves each year. Most of the ones who succumb are the youngest and oldest of our fellow Americans. And the price tag for all of those foodborne illnesses totals about $152 billion each year, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.
About 80 percent of the people who get a foodborne illness ate a food that is—in theory, at least—regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. I say in theory, because as we often learn after a major outbreak, food processing facilities and farms can often go five or ten years without a visit from a FDA inspector.
That is on the verge of changing, if the Senate does its job. For the past 10 years, we at the 850,000-member-strong Center for Science in the Public Interest have led the fight for reform of our fossilized food safety laws. Victims of foodborne illness—or in some cases, their surviving family members—have provided their gripping testimony. And now the advocates for safer food comprise a broad coalition of health, medical, consumer, and even food-industry groups.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act represents the culmination of that long haul. This bill would transform the FDA from an agency that chases down the sources of outbreaks after people get sick into an agency focused on preventing contamination before it occurs. Think back on the headlines: A leaky roof sending bird droppings—and Salmonella—into peanut products at the infamous Peanut Corporation of America. E. coli contaminating fields of spinach. And unspeakably filthy conditions at the DeCoster farm that produced Salmonella-tainted eggs that sickened 1,800 people.
Food may never be totally free of germs. But so many of the horror stories we’ve read about could have been avoided if the facilities in question had been required to write and follow a food safety plan—and be regularly inspected by the FDA. The Senate food safety bill requires both of those things, and, importantly, it also gives the agency the mandatory-recall authority it now lacks.
Now that small and organic producers as well as big grocers and food manufacturers all support the bill, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have agreed on a time certain to debate and vote on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. They intend to start debate in the late afternoon on Monday, November 29, and have a final, up-or-down vote at some point later that night.
American agriculture is never going back to the 1800s. But American food safety law must not remain stuck in the early 1900s. This week—whether you’re still thawing your turkey—take a minute to call your Senators at 1-877-481-9966 and insist that they be in Washington to vote “yes” on S. 510 on Monday. Alternatively, use the sample email message you can send from here.
Whether you’re a donkey or an elephant or a tea party patriot; whether you shop at the Walmart or Whole Foods, you can help ensure America’s agricultural bounty is safer and safer for many Thanksgivings to come.