FRIDAY, Jan. 4, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday proposed two significant safety measures aimed at better protecting the nation's food supply.
The rules would cover most links in the food supply network, from farm to processing facilities, and are part of the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama exactly two years ago.
"These rules represent significant advances to the Administration's goal of strengthening the food-safety program to protect health," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said at a news conference. "We have one of the best food-safety systems in the world, but we have work to do to prevent foodborne illnesses before they start. We need to do more than react after the fact. Preventing problems before they cause harm is not only common sense, it is the key to food safety in the 21st century."
According to Hamburg, one in six Americans suffers from a foodborne illness annually. Outbreaks result in 3,000 deaths each year and 30,000 hospitalizations. This past summer, three people died and 260 became ill across 24 states in a salmonella outbreak linked to tainted cantaloupes.
The first proposed rule introduces new standards to keep produce grown on farms safe. It focuses on specific "microbiological hazards" such as listeria and E. coli that have long been associated with foodborne illnesses, said Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
The rule is aimed at the different ways fruits and vegetables can become contaminated: through tainted water, poor employee hygiene, manure or other materials put into the soil, or from animals that might wander into the growing fields.
The rule does not affect foods that are destined to be canned or that are traditionally cooked before eaten, such as potatoes and artichokes, Taylor said.
Larger farms would expect to be in compliance with the new rules within 26 months, though smaller enterprises would get more time.
The second rule would require domestic and foreign makers of food sold in the United States to develop plans to prevent their products from becoming contaminated. Facilities would also have to have plans in place to correct any problems that might arise.
"This rule establishes the basic framework for controlling hazards during processing," Taylor said.
The new rules do not affect meat production, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The FDA expects to propose more rules in the future, including some that would affect food importers. According to the agency, about 15 percent of all food consumed in the United States is imported.
Although "no strategy can achieve zero risk," Hamburg said, recent outbreaks were caused by problems that would be addressed by these approaches.
There will be a 120-day period for comments on the proposed regulations.
Visit the FDA for more on the Food Safety Modernization Act.