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Press Call on Food Safety Modernization Act

January 3, 2011
Washington, DC

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning, and thanks for joining us to hear about the historic and long-overdue food safety legislation that the President will be signing tomorrow.

The Food Safety Modernization Act is the most significant food safety law of the last hundred years. It will bring our food safety system into the 21st century, improve health, save lives, and help Americans feel confident when they sit down at the dinner table that they won’t end up in the hospital.

For too long, our efforts to ensure that the food we eat is safe have not kept pace with a food supply chain that has grown more complex and now stretches around the world.

The result is that the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods has grown from 100 a year in early 1990s to nearly 350. Today, one out of six Americans gets sick from foodborne illnesses each year, with 128,000 people ending up in the hospital and 3,000 dying.

That’s an unacceptable price to pay for contaminations that are mostly preventable.

That’s why President Obama has made upgrading our food safety system a top priority from his first days in office. Last March, he created a new Food Safety Working Group co-chaired by myself and Secretary Vilsack to make recommendations about how to do that. And many of those recommendations are reflected in the law he will sign tomorrow.

With this new legislation, we will give the FDA and Department of Agriculture new tools, resources, and authority to prevent contaminated food from ending up on our pantry shelves or in our children’s lunch boxes.

That starts with putting a new focus on prevention. Today, our food safety system is mostly reactive, chasing down outbreaks after they occur.

Under this law, the FDA has the power for the first time to require food facilities at every stage in the food supply chain to adopt proven policies that have been shown to reduce contamination. This will make everyone who plays a role in moving our food from farm to table a partner in keeping that food safe.

The law also includes new tools that will help the FDA ensure the safety of the growing share of our food comes from overseas. Today, about one sixth of our food supply is imported from more than 150 foreign countries, including a fifth of fresh vegetables, half of fresh fruits, and 80 percent of seafood.

Now, the FDA will be able to require importers to verify that their foreign suppliers are taking the necessary safety precautions. In other words, they’ll be able to make sure that sea bass from Chile meets the same safety standards as lobster from Maine.

In addition, the new law gives FDA the power to order mandatory recalls for the first time. While food producers have often voluntarily agreed to recalls in the past, this reform removes any doubt that recalls will occur when necessary.

Combined, these reforms and others in the law will allow us to build a more robust and better-coordinated food safety system that will keep Americans healthy and spare food producers from costly recalls.

This change will not happen overnight, and it is still essential that Congress provides sufficient funding for these improvements to take shape. But thanks to this legislation, we can begin building the 21st century food safety system we need.