The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years, was signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011. It aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.
The following summer 33 people lost their lives to eating listeria-contaminated cantaloupe. Many others became sick due to this “adulterated food.” (Adulterated food is another way of saying contaminated food.) The Jensen brothers, the owners of the farm where the listeria-tainted cantaloupe were grown, were recently charged with six counts to include introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, and aiding and abetting. It is now questionable whether retailers who sold the listeria-contaminated fruit should likewise be charged.
William Marler, a leading food-borne illness attorney, recently suggested the entire food chain needs to be held accountable. He also suggested that the auditor for the Jensen farms is equally liable. Evidently, the retailers required audits of the farm’s cantaloupe processing facilities and did not catch the unsanitary conditions that resulted in the contamination.
The production and processing of fruits and vegetables are risk-filled endeavors. Vegetables are harvested and processed quickly while fresh and food safety issues can occur. Even consumers often neglect the need to wash their produce prior to consuming it. Improper storage further increases the risk of illness.
The FDA food safety modernization act establishes prevention as the key element of the law and provides a method to assist farmers with the information they need to comply with FDA’s produce safety regulations. People of the United States suffer each year from food-borne illnesses. One out of every six people (48 million) becomes ill due to food-borne illness. And, more than 100,000 are hospitalized, and thousands die from contaminated food products.
The law also requires the FDA to establish science-based standards on the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables in order to minimize the risk of serious illness or death. The law also gives FDA more oversight on fruit and vegetables imported into the United States. FDA estimates that 15% of the US food supply is imported including 60% of its fresh fruits and vegetables, and 80% of our seafood.
For the first time, the FDA will have mandatory recall authority for all products. While these new requirements will increase the number of FDA inspectors, our food will hopefully be safer.
The final outcome of the Jensen lawsuit will determine whether retailers, shippers and others in the food chain are criminally liable for the safety of the foods we consume. Anyone who grows and sells or gives away fruits and vegetables needs to be aware of what’s happening as the results of this trial are likely to have a direct effect on them. I’ve often wondered if people who are selling or giving away fruits and vegetables would be considered liable if their consumer’s become ill. I’ve always assumed that was the case. The results of this case may give the answer.
A short while ago growers in the Palisade area were notified that larva of spotted wing drosophila (SWD) had been collected at three sites near Palisade in harvest-ready raspberries, blackberries and a strawberry. Thankfully, the samples were sent to a taxonomic specialist with the California Department of Food & Agriculture and were identified to the correct species, D. melanogaster. This fruit fly is a common secondary invader of overripe produce. Growers who took the warning of SWD seriously can rest assured the larva collected were not SWD. This does not mean we won’t at some time need to treat locally-grown fruits for this devastating insect, but that is not necessary until a positive identification of this insect is actually made. I wonder if SWD-infested fruit would be considered “adulterated food.” I assume so, just like the sweet cherries containing the maggots of the western cherry fruit fly.
Dr. Curtis E. Swift is a retired horticulture agent with the Colorado State University Extension. Reach him at Curtis.Swift@alumni.colostate.edu, 970-778-7866 or check out his blog at http://SwiftsGardeningBlog.blogspot.com. He owns Swift Horticultural Consulting and High Altitude Lavender.