Eric Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation" and the Oscar-nominated documentary "Food, Inc." he coproduced jolted Americans into thinking critically about where the food on their plates comes from. It's only fitting that this influential author has fired the latest salvo in the fight to save the most important food-safety legislation in several generations: the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is bogged down in the Senate and facing an uphill battle to get to a floor vote before the end of the year.
Writing recently in the New York Times, Schlosser sounded a dramatic alarm by noting that the annual national death toll from foodborne disease -- about 5,000 -- is about the same as the total number of Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. In a follow-up with a Star Tribune editorial writer this week, Schlosser added: "Most of the food that most Americans eat is being produced by large agribusiness firms -- and, increasingly, being imported from overseas. The federal government needs the authority to hold those companies responsible for the safety of the food they sell.''
That the Food Safety Modernization Act is still mired in the Senate is an outrage. There is widespread recognition that the bill is a long-overdue, common-sense step to update America's horse-and-buggy-era food safety laws.
The bill, championed by Illinois Democrat Sen. Richard Durbin and cosponsored by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, has enjoyed broad support politically and from consumer and industry groups -- among them, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association. A Consumer Union poll released earlier this month also found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed are in favor one of the bill's key components: giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the power to order recalls of tainted foods.
Among other things, the bill would require annual inspections for high-risk processing facilities, improve oversight of imported foods and significantly improve "tracebacks" -- figuring out contaminated products' location -- before consumers eat them. That's a critical issue in an era when a few large operations provide the raw material for many processed products. Contamination at one large Georgia peanut butter plant, for example, led to one of the nation's largest-ever food recalls in 2009.
Minnesotans have a large stake in the bill's passage. The state is a national leader in food processing. And its citizens have been victims in recent high-profile food outbreaks. For instance, Shirley Mae Almer, 72, of Perham, died after eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter in late 2008.
The state's world-class public health scientists also played lead roles in tracking the sources of outbreaks. The Senate should swiftly embrace an amendment to the bill -- one pushed by Klobuchar -- that would leverage Minnesota's expertise in foodborne disease surveillance to help train officials across the nation. Lawmakers also should take care that the new regulatory powers don't unfairly target or penalize small producers, a concern of Schlosser's. In addition, senators should reject a controversial amendment from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would ban a plastic additive known as bisphenol-A (BPA). The debate over this is jeopardizing the bill's broad support and passage; the issue should be dealt with separately.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently put the bill on his priority list to pass before the August recess. That's unlikely given the Senate's jam-packed agenda. But there's no excuse for inaction after Labor Day; the bill will have to be reintroduced if it doesn't pass before 2011. "The fact that they haven't voted on it yet is just frustrating,'' said Shirley Almer's son, Jeff Almer, of Savage. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about this issue and how my mom must have been feeling and what other families have gone through.''