The U.S. food safety act is law. What now?

The biggest update on food safety legislation in nearly a century was passed by Congress in the final days of 2010. Food producers and distributors would be excused for wondering ‘So what next?’

The short answer is ‘sit tight’.

Yes, Congress managed to pass this huge piece of food legislation (signed into law earlier this week) in the dying days of what was supposed to be an ineffectual lame-duck session (but by historical standards was vastly productive). And yes, the bill was sweeping, granting the FDA mandatory recall powers as well as the ability to increase inspection frequencies, target high-risk sites, boost farm oversight, and better trace food-borne illnesses to their sources.

But businesses with an appetite for clear details on what exactly will be expected by the FDA in the coming months might be left a little hungry. While the legislation has been safely passed, there are a number of roadblocks and executive hurdles to overcome.

So when will the changes be fully implemented? Well, some take place immediately. For example, the FDA’s mandatory recall authority is already active. Other provisions are affected by rulemaking processes and funding.

Rulemaking

As with most pieces of sweeping legislation, Congress only sets out broad goals and guidelines. Specific targets and rules will be developed by the FDA through the rulemaking process, which will take place over the next nine to 18 months. During this time, the FDA will engage stakeholders in an extensive series of consultations to flesh out exactly how the rules will manifest. For example, while the call for written plans on food safety protocols and hazard mitigation is mandated by the act, the exact requirements of the documentation won’t be established by the FDA for a number of months.

Funding

The FDA must also be sufficiently funded to ensure legislation is implemented. The funding the agency is awarded each year directly affects staffing, inspection capacity, and the scope of operations. A number of members of the incoming Republican-dominated Congress have already declared they will fight to trim the budget package back.

In the meantime, proactive businesses can soften the blow some of the eventual requirements by:

  • Implementing a food safety management system.
  • Document detailed food safety plans.
  • Emphasize hazard identification and risk mitigation across the entire organization.
  • Prepare for increased inspection frequency.

Foodsafety.gov features some tips on what the new law means to businesses and consumers, and Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, U.S. Commissioner  of Food and Drugs, has an excellent blog post on how the new bill is all about prevention.

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