What does the Food Safety Bill mean for the average family? - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

What does the Food Safety Bill mean for the average family?

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -- The Federal Centers for Disease Control estimates tens of millions of Americans are sickened, and thousands die, from food borne illnesses each year. To help combat the problem, a new food safety bill is making its way through Capitol Hill--- passed easily by the Senate. It was one of the Senate's first actions when they reconvened in Washington Tuesday.

Senator Chuck Grassley said the July 2010 recall of 380 million Iowa eggs spurred lawmakers to make a change. But -- and this may come as a surprise -- the bill does not change inspections rules for processed eggs, poultry or meat. Those are all handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, this does overhaul the amount of control and power the FDA has over food safety, including recalls, produce inspections, and imported goods. But what does the $1.4 billion bill mean for the average family?

Third grade teacher Bridget Becker agreed to help us answer that question. She was shopping at Hy-Vee for ingredients for tacos.

"Lettuce, tomato, onions..." she listed off.

But, like most folks, she's not debating whether or not the produce will make her sick.

"I really don't, I don't think about it. But I do clean it when I get home," she said.

"I believe that most every consumer in America has so much confidence in the safety of the food that they're buying that they really don't think that much about government inspection," Grassley explained.

So if, in general, Americans think their food is safe, why overhaul the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's authority? Right now, consumers essentially have to trust companies to do the right thing, and Grassley believes the nation's agricultural economy is dependent on keeping that trust.

"There can't be any profitability in farming if consumers don't have confidence in their food supply," said Grassley.

One point of contention: all the major recalls you've heard about have been voluntary -- because the FDA cannot require a company to take their products off the shelves.

"It's just up to them if they decide to do a recall? Wow, that's a little scary," Becker noted.

This bill would grant the FDA the power to conduct a mandatory recall. It also revises the inspection and tracking policy for produce -- including things like peanuts and tomatoes which have prompted recalls in the past.

"It's kind of a risk-based attention that a lot of industries are going to get that they didn't get," Grassley explained.

"In Fiscal Year 2010, the FDA - with help from the states - inspected about 20,542 facilities, and only about 1.6% of the food imported from other countries. Under the bill passed today, we expect that number to increase 3 to 4 fold over the next 5 years," said Senator Tom Harkin, the sponsor of the Senate version of this bill.

The hope is, when a shopper like Becker roams the aisles, she can continue concentrating on her grocery list, rather than worry about what's in her cart.

"They're going to have a higher degree of confidence that the food they buy is going to be safe, it's going to be free from bacteria, it's going to be free from pathogens," said Harkin.

"I think that's great," added Becker.

Harkin said he initially introduced this bill back in 2008 during a salmonella outbreak.

"The FDA at first suspected tomatoes as the source of the outbreak. By the time the agency traced it to jalapeños, three months had passed and more than 1,300 people nationwide had been sickened. The status quo wasn't going to cut it anymore. The bill passed by the Senate Tuesday will bring our food safety system into the 21st century," he said.

The bill does include exemptions for small farmers who sell their produce locally. If your business makes less than $500,000 each year, and sells within 275 miles of your farm, you are not subject to the same inspection standards as larger facilities. That's something pushed for by farmer's market advocates.

"I think the exemptions are very good for the small farmer, and to help make sure we have access to local food," said Jill Weber, ISU Extension Nutrition Specialist.

The ISU Extension offices are planning food safety courses for farmers in our area in April 2011. For more information, email Weber by clicking here.

Online Reporter Colleen O'Shaughnessy

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