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FDA Toughens Up Food Safety Rules to Prevent Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

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New guidelines affect produce farms and food importers.

Stephen Morton/Getty Images

Foodborne illness outbreaks have dominated headlines lately, from Chipotle and Blue Bell to cucumbers and cheese. That fact certainly isn't lost on the FDA, which today announced new food safety rules intended to help stem the tide of such disasters.

An FDA press release explains the new rules "for the first time, establish enforceable safety standards for produce farms and make importers accountable for verifying that imported food meets U.S. safety standards." These rules have been years in the making and will help to realize the vision of a "comprehensive food safety overhaul" laid out by the bipartisan Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law back in 2011.

The new rules are as follows:

  • Produce Safety rule: Provides guidelines on how produce farms must grow, harvest, pack, and store produce; they include requirements for water quality, employee health and hygiene, and equipment, tools, and buildings.
  • Foreign Supplier Verification Programs rule: Requires food importers to verify that foreign foods being brought into the U.S. are being manufactured "in a manner that meets U.S. safety standards." Importers will conduct audits on manufacturing facilities, test or sample the food, and/or review a supplier's safety records.
  • Accredited Third-Party Certification rule: Establishes a program to accredit auditors to perform the duties laid out in the Foreign Supplier Verification Programs rule.

The government is hoping these new guidelines will help the food industry to take more of a proactive, rather than reactive, stance on preventing foodborne illnesses by "help[ing] produce farmers and food importers take steps to prevent problems before they occur."

Recent data from the CDC says each year, 48 million people — that's 1 in 6 Americans — fall ill from foodborne diseases; 128,000 of those are hospitalized, and approximately 3,000 of those result in death. Under the new rules, disasters like the recent cucumber-related salmonella outbreak could be avoided; the tainted cucumbers, which were imported from Mexico, killed four people and sickened hundreds across 30 states.

The new rules for farmers and food importers follow new, stricter guidelines for domestic food manufacturers that were announced earlier this year. The FDA notes that proper implementation of all these new policies will depend on funding — but provided the nation's budget allows for it, the FDA's new guidelines should make significant headway toward making the U.S. food supply safer for consumers.

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