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Making sense of food safety legislation

August 10, 2009 |  3:15 pm

If anything positive can be found in the recent salmonella outbreak in peanuts that caused at least nine deaths and prompted the recall of hundreds of foods, it’s that Congress appears poised to strengthen our food safety laws.

Peanuts A bill that passed the House last month would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration more authority to inspect food manufacturing plants and to authorize recalls when needed. It would also revamp the system to focus more on preventing outbreaks instead of tracing them after they occur. The Senate is considering a similar bill.

Of always, the devil is in the details. If you find yourself lacking the time it would take to read the bills yourself, check out this analysis by Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of “Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism.” In large part, she writes on the Atlantic’s Nutrition blog, the House bill is modeled on a preventive approach called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP. This, she says, is a sensible way to go.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety cases, offers a more in-depth analysis on his blog. He ends with four suggestions to make the reform even more comprehensive. For instance, he advocates a system in which all food producers “play by the same food safety rules,” regardless of their size or whether they sell to manufacturers or directly to consumers.

He also views food safety as one step toward revamping our agricultural system so that larger issues of environmental sustainability, energy use and biodiversity are taken into account. “We need a food policy that helps create healthy humans,” he writes.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Are these peanuts safe? Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times

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