Senate should pass measure to enhance food safety (Buffalo News)

By Nicholas I. Timko

Updated: October 12, 2010, 6:43 AM

Recent news from America’s corporate food factories is sickening. The U. S. Senate responded to the latest outbreak of food poisoning with public hearings last month to scold two giant egg producers responsible for salmonella afflicting at least 1,500 people.

Next should have been the Senate’s approval of legislation to update outdated federal food-safety laws.

Instead, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn stalled the bill and legislators have left Washington until November. So the Food and Drug Administration remains unable to mandate tighter standards and increase inspections, leaving the agency only able to respond to these crises after they occur.

Big agribusiness lobbyists have continually outmaneuvered the outdated food regulation system enacted in the 1930s, even though tainted food causes 5,000 deaths and 75 million reported illnesses annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The epidemic of tainted eggs, coming on the heels of illnesses and deaths from contaminated spinach and peanuts, shows how little protection consumers have. While some consumers can buy local produce from smaller farms, even that is not always an answer.

Consider Kreher’s Farms, a family-owned operation with three farms in Western New York supplying eggs to Wegmans and Tops. Kreher’s participates in New York’s Egg Quality Assurance Program, safety procedures established by state agencies, Cornell University and New York egg producers.

But this program is voluntary—relying on producers to police themselves. Kreher’s, which keeps 100,000 of its 1.4 million chickens at a cage-free, organic farm in the town of Alabama, opposes raising requirements for organic certification, an issue the U. S. Department of Agriculture will review soon.

Kreher’s is only acting like a business. Safety precautions help consumer confidence — and sales.

But businesses routinely oppose increased regulation. Instead they seek the shortest route from production to profit — with shortcuts yielding horrible consequences.

The pending federal food-safety bill, S-510, requires food processors, including on-farm operations, to identify contamination risks and outline plans to minimize them. It gives the Food and Drug Administration, for the first time, direction to prevent food-borne illnesses and order recalls.

Combined with a strong civil justice system to hold agribusiness responsible when it needlessly endangers consumers, the pending bill provides a valuable tool to making our food supply safer.

This measure is supported by health experts, grocers and even the National Association of Manufacturers. It passed the House with bipartisan support more than a year ago. The Senate has a few weeks to do the right thing.

Nicholas I. Timko is president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.

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