Two weeks ago, the nation moved one step closer to a safer food supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (Senate bill S. 510) was recently approved by the powerful Senate health committee, and if enacted, will greatly strengthen FDA’s ability to oversee the safety of the U.S. food supply.

Passage of the bill was hailed by both consumer groups and the food industry. The bill is the result of a great deal of hard work by members on both sides of the aisle who recognized the urgent need to improve our food safety system. 

The FDA is currently charged with inspecting and monitoring much of the food produced and imported into the U.S.  As a public health agency, the FDA is responsible for protecting consumers from being exposed to foodborne contamination. Yet inadequate budgets, outdated laws and limited enforcement authority have hobbled the agency and hindered its ability to prevent people from exposure to hazards in the food supply.

Millions of consumers are sickened, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and thousands die annually from consuming contaminated food, according to government estimates.  The cost to society is huge as well—over $350 billion each year in medical costs and lost productivity according to expert estimates.

Furthermore, foodborne illness outbreaks are bad for business. After several years of high-profile nationwide outbreaks from common everyday foods such as spinach, leafy greens, peppers, peanut butter paste and pistachios, public trust in the safety of the food supply has been severely damaged.

A nationwide survey conducted earlier this year by technology giant IBM shows that 60 percent of consumers were concerned about the safety of the foods they purchase. Less than 20 percent of consumers trusted food companies to develop and sell safe food products. And 57 percent of consumers said they had stopped purchasing foods, even for a short time, within the past two years because of safety concerns.

Sales figures provide an even more daunting picture for the industry. The Kellogg Company reportedly lost between $65 and 70 million as a result of the large nationwide outbreak and recall in 2009 prompted by contaminated peanut butter products from a Peanut Corporation of America facility in Georgia. Moreover, the spinach industry saw a substantial decrease in sales as a result of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 2006; product sales have still not rebounded to pre-outbreak levels.

The Senate legislation, along with a companion bill already approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, takes a preventive approach to food safety at FDA. The bills require food facilities to develop preventive control programs to reduce the risk of potential contamination of food produced in the plant. It provides FDA with the authority to implement more thorough oversight requirements for food facilities and to mandate recalls of tainted products. It also includes stricter requirements on importation and establishes a process to develop a more comprehensive traceability system to track food in the event of an outbreak.

Support for passing strong food safety legislation is broad. Consumer Federation of America and other consumer and public health groups have joined with industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute in urging the Senate to act before the end of the year. It will be an historic accomplishment for Congress and it is only a few steps away.