The Jungle, a 1906 novel by journalist and muckraker Upton Sinclair, catalyzed the United States government’s intervention with food safety laws and regulation. His book unveiled harsh working conditions, a disregard to sanitation, a lack of cleanliness and a broken system in Chicago’s meat packing industry. Though the book may not have intended to bring about major and revolutionary government reforms, it did.
In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and later, in 1937, the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. It also led Congress to pass the first food safety law with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the lead. These bills laid the framework for government regulations in the food industry, ensuring that America’s citizens would always be informed, knowledgeable, and kept safe from food borne illnesses.
Though the United States has come a long way from the standards in 1906, more still needs to be done. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows the each year one in six Americans – 48 million people – get sick from foodborne disease. 128,000 of those people are hospitalized and 3,000 of them die.
There are many factors which create food safety challenges in the 21st century, such as an increase in imported foods, more people eating raw or low-processed foods, and an aging population that is most susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
We’ve all seen news stories about food recalls due to contamination. Years ago I received a letter from a woman named Nancy in Chicago who told me the story of her 6-year-old son Alex who died tragically three days after consuming contaminated hamburger meat. Her story shook me. To this day Nancy advocates for making food safety laws better in the United States and I have joined her in that effort.
Our current food safety system is full of both overlap and dangerous gaps in oversight. We in Congress need to stop reacting to food scares with piecemeal changes and dramatically re-think and reorganize America’s food safety system.
In 2010, Congress passed the historic Food Safety Modernization Act. This legislation updated the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety authorities to better address emerging risks and focus priorities on preventing foodborne illness. More work must be done to finalize new rules and provide funding increases to fully implement the law.
Though the Food Modernization Act was an important step, it did nothing to improve the safety of meat and poultry and nothing to address the fragmented nature of our current food safety system.
Currently there are 15 different agencies that have food safety responsibilities. This patchwork of oversight makes it harder to focus on the highest risks in our food system and makes foodborne illness outbreaks more difficult to manage.
For years, I have worked closely with Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut on a solution. We plan to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would establish a single, well-organized agency to enforce a uniform set of food safety standards. The Safe Food Act of 2015 is a culmination of an over 20 year effort to ensure the food we eat is safe. I hope this Congress can pass a comprehensive food safety bill that President Obama can sign into law.
Our current system is not as efficient and effective as it should be. It’s time we modernized and consolidated our government’s effort to protect the food we eat while integrating the latest scientific tools and technology. Investing in this effort now will improve our public health system for years to come.
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Sent from the office of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin