Screen shot 2010-08-18 at 2.18.15 PM.pngScreen shot 2010-08-18 at 2.19.05 PM.pngIn the middle of yet another nationwide recall of food (228,000,000 eggs to be exact) and an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis linked to those eggs that appears to have begun in the Spring and announced in August, I had memory of House Bill 2749 (passed Jul7 2009), Sec., 121 and Senate Bill 501 (to be voted on shortly) Sec., 205. I know, I know, I need to get a life.

Interestingly these Sections have received little attention, but IMHO, have the greatest opportunity to fundamentally change how food is produced in the United States. Overstatement? Perhaps.

Of course, if SB 510 passes, it will need to be reconciled with the language of HB 2749. And, Congress will need to provide adequate funding and the President will need to sign it. Then of course the agencies impacted will need to promulgate Regulations – so, not a quick fix.

Read those sections above for yourself. However, here is my take on them:

Both Bills opening provisions are essentially the same except the Senate version excludes in Section (E) (House version (b) (5)), “including working toward automatic electronic searches” and “in order to identify new or rarely documented causes of feed-borne illness and submit standardized information to a centralized database.” Frankly, I am not clear what the Senate is concerned about here other than the fact that most Senators are as old as dirt and predate a former Senator inventing the internet in the first place.

The remaining provisions of the opening provisions are identical. The Secretary of HHS (remember these bills ONLY relate to FDA and the products it oversees) “acting through the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shall enhance food-borne illness surveillance systems to improve the collection, analysis, reporting and usefulness of data on food-borne illnesses by…” Clearly, all laudable goals.

So, how does SB 510 and HR 2749 accomplish that?

– coordinate Federal, State and local systems, including complaint systems and networks of public health, food regulatory agencies and labs;

– facilitate sharing of findings between FDA, USDA, State and local agencies, and the public;

– develop improved epidemiological tools;

– improve systems that attribute an outbreak to a specific food;

– expand fingerprinting and other detection strategies for food-borne agents;

– allow public access to aggregated, de-identified surveillance data;

– publish findings at least yearly;

– rapidly initiate scientific research by academic institutions;

– integrate surveillance systems and data with other biosurveillance and public health entities.

Also, not in the House Bill is the creation of “PARTNERSHIPS” which appears to actually be a “working group of experts and stakeholders from Federal, State and local food safety and health agencies, the food industry, consumer organizations and academia.”

SB 510 Section 205 (c) in most part is a restatement of the above to-do list with the addition of “strengthen[ing] the capacity of State and local agencies to carry our inspections and enforce safety standards.”

Section 205 (d) requires the Secretary to (within a year) complete a review of State and local capacities, including staffing levels, laboratory capacity, outbreak response, inspection and enforcement functions

So, why did I say, that these surveillance provisions “have the greatest opportunity to fundamentally change how food is produced in the United?” Bottomline, it is information. In a market-based country and economy, having information about what is poisoning us should not be in the exclusive ownership of manufacturers or the government. Information is the key to allowing consumers to make the best choices that they can. Choices drive decisions to purchase (or stop purchasing) a food product. Presumably, if we had better information on who was poisoning us, we would stop buying from them. Presumably too those manufacturers would either clean up their act or go out of business.

True, a complete free market approach will not work – some level of regulation will be required to protect consumers and to protect manufacturers. Having good information and a coordinated surveillance system will allow for smart, targeted inspection and enforcement.

The goal here is to create a food supply safer than the one that allows for the poisoning of 76,000,000, hospitalization of 325, 000 and the death of 5,000 yearly in the United States because they ate food.