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Food safety law increases FDA’s authority over food supply


In the United States, 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from a preventable disease. If you are thinking of a virus epidemic or the co-morbidities associated with obesity, you are off track. In fact, 1 in 6 Americans becomes ill from this disease yearly. Any guesses?

This significant public health problem that can affect all age groups is attributed to food-borne diseases, or what people often call food poisoning. Primarily, this is due to contamination of food by certain microorganisms that can produce toxic substances and/or infect our bodies. The most vulnerable groups include children, seniors and those with compromised immune systems.

Prevention of food-borne illness requires all levels of the food business to move into the 21st century with a modern focus on minimizing the risks of food contamination. The United States is part of a global food network that is clearly seen in Hawaii’s foods. What makes Hawaii’s eating experience wonderful, from plate lunches to high-end cuisine, is the amazing ingredients obtained from local agriculture and all over the world. 

Question: How does being a part of the global food chain affect food-borne illness risk?

Answer: Obviously, if you eat, you are at risk of getting a food-borne illness. Clean food preparation has been stressed to decrease this risk, and this has not changed. What has changed, however, is the way single foods and food ingredients originate from all over the world, making food contamination harder to track and prevent.

Q: Is anything being done to make our food safer? 

A: Yes. On Jan. 4, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This change is the first significant change in U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s mandate since 1938. For the first time, the FDA is mandated to put in place prevention-based controls rather than only reacting to food safety problems when they occur. With our global food system, this is an extensive and complex undertaking.

Q: How will FSMA affect our food system?

A: There are five major components of this act. The FDA will now be in charge of creating and then regulating 1) preventive controls across the food supply; 2) systematic inspection of the food industry to hold food producers accountable; 3) rules for U.S. food importers, requiring foreign suppliers to meet U.S. food safety standards and require compliance; 4) a network of coordinated partnerships among local and foreign agencies; 5) a system for the FDA to enforce mandatory product recalls, a new power for the agency.

Q: How else does the Food Safety Modernization Act change how the FDA regulates foods?

A: Food facilities will now be required to have a written food safety prevention plan similar to what is presently in place for fish and juices.

Q: Is the new law only about food safety?

A: No. The FSMA also covers the mandate to provide consumers with nutritional information meant to assist their personal health. A proposed rule would require businesses with 20 or more vending machines to provide calorie information for food items that the consumer can see prior to purchase. 

Q: Is there a time line attached to FSMA?

A: Yes. Within two years all parts will be in place.

You can find all the nuts and bolts of the FSMA at

Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., and Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii-Manoa. Dobbs also works with University Health Services.

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