Will the FDA's New Rules Improve Food Safety?

EXPERT COMMENTARY

Will the FDA's New Rules Improve Food Safety?

By Richard Williams |
Jan 04, 2013

The Food and Drug Administration recently unveiled a set of proposed food safety rules meant to protect consumers, but the proposal could lead to higher food costs without much of an improvement in safety. Mercatus Center director of policy research Richard Williams, who spent 27 years with the FDA as the director for social sciences at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, gives his thoughts.

These rules are based largely on the FDA’s belief that it can make food safer by requiring industry to do things that, many, many firms are already doing.  The rules put preventive controls – largely an industry-invented system called Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) – under FDA jurisdiction. The FDA, as happens now, would inspect firms an average of once every 5 years to see that they are in compliance.  These regulations already exist for several products, including meat and poultry, seafood, and fruit juices.  It is not clear how much of an improvement in food safety there is likely to be with applying many of these provisions for other foods.

Although there is some question about the efficacy of the preventive controls, there are some provisions to enhance trace backs and DNA fingerprinting of pathogens (which can positively tie tainted foods to the plant that produced them).  These federal tools have already created incentives for food companies to take responsibility for the safety of their foods, and there have been thousands of private food safety contracts with accompanying private inspections.   If there is a higher likelihood of being caught producing unsafe food, food producers and farmers will take greater care to avoid lawsuits, recall costs, and lost sales.  Because they have the most specialized knowledge about their own products and production processes, this is where we are likely to see the most improvement.   

Foods under the jurisdiction of the new rules would likely go up in price and we need to evaluate whether the risk-reducing benefits of these proposals justifies the costs that will be imposed on consumers if these rules are allowed to go final.   President Obama has re-enforced the benefit-cost requirement in his recent regulatory Executive Order, as well as in speeches over the last few years.   Certainly one thing to look for is whether there are accompanying risk assessments with these rules.

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