In 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most sweeping overhaul of the country’s food safety laws since 1932.  The FSMA directs the FDA to build a new system of food safety oversight—and with good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year foodborne illnesses strike 48 million (one out of six) Americans, killing and hospitalizing thousands [1]. The source of these illnesses can range from fresh fruit and vegetables to improperly processed egg, dairy and juice products. The passage of this law reaffirms that food safety is a high priority for government.

Proactive Approach

The major change that will occur under the FSMA is that the FDA will be moving from a reactive mode to a more proactive mode when it comes to protecting consumers from potential foodborne illness.

Under the new law, importers now have more responsibility for the safety of the food they import. For example, food facilities must now have a valid food safety plan to evaluate the hazards in their operations and to implement effective measures to prevent contamination.  Prior to the law’s enactment, about one percent of all food imported into the U.S. was inspected by the FDA, and there were concerns that many food products may not have been properly handled or monitored prior to reaching U.S. borders.  The act helps reduce these concerns by:

  • Enhancing the FDA’s ability to place products on hold that are suspected of being contaminated or adulterated, as well as to issue recalls more quickly upon finding that a food facility is not following a valid food safety plan.
  • Increasing the “reach” of the FDA by allowing accredited third-party organizations to inspect food facilities to ensure they meet FDA standards in their country of origin before shipping.  This essentially increases the number of “eyes and ears” that check food from other countries to make sure they’re safe. 
  • Improving the traceability of foods so that their origins can be easily and quickly traced and identified in the event of a recall. 
  • Allowing the FDA to focus more attention on the riskiest foods.

Consumers’ Role

While government and industry are helping to do their part to protect Americans, food safety can’t end with the FDA.  It must continue all the way to our dinner tables, which means that we, as consumers, need to know and practice proper food safety habits in our everyday lives.  Here are some things you can do to protect your family:

  • Be vigilant about the food you chose.  There are a number of things that can go wrong before the food makes its way to your table.  When out shopping in the supermarket, make sure to keep your eyes open. Don’t choose opened or damaged packages, dented cans or bruised produce. Check expiration and sell-by dates for all food. There’s no need to be paranoid, but a little bit of extra attention doesn’t hurt.
  • Shop the right way.  Be a smart food shopper.  When you enter the grocery store, shop for nonperishable items first, such as canned and dry goods. Buy refrigerated, frozen foods and hot deli items last - right before checkout.  If you have other errands to run that day, do your food shopping last.  If that’s not possible, pack a cooler in your car with ice packs so that the food can remain at a safe temperature until you get home.
  • Keep it clean. A recent germ study by NSF International revealed that kitchens are the germiest place in the home, so it’s important to regularly clean and sanitize your kitchen counters as well as the kitchen sink. When cooking, avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats and vegetables. Always wash the exterior surface of all melons and other produce before slicing or peeling to help remove soil and surface bacteria. Don’t forget to properly wash your hands before cooking or eating and especially after handling any raw meats. It may sound simple, but use the same standard of care you would expect from a restaurant when you’re in your own home.

The passage of the FSMA is good for consumers because it provides an added level of protection for you and your family when it comes to food safety. But remember that the responsibility doesn’t solely lie with the government, your supermarket or even you. Food safety is a shared responsibility. And when all the different parties work together toward that goal, that’s when we can truly raise the bar on food safety.  Learning, understanding and changing food safety behavior through simple everyday practices at all levels will make a substantial difference in reducing the amount of foodborne illness in America.

 

About the Author

Cheryl Luptowski is the Public Information Officer/Home Safety Expert for NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization that certifies products and writes standards in the areas of dietary supplement safety, consumer products, toys, drinking water, and sustainability. Cheryl has been interviewed as a home expert in national print, online and radio and has authored many articles and fact sheets with tips for healthier living. She is the face behind “Ask NSF,” NSF’s online Q & A portal and she chairs the NSF Consumer Advisory Panel.


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (December 15, 2010). “CDC Reports 1 in 6 Get Sick from Foodborne Illnesses Each Year.” Press release.