In many ways, he said, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is as big a deal as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which gained traction from Upton Sinclair's exposé of sickening practices in Chicago slaughterhouses.
We've come a long way since The Jungle, but hazardous conditions such as contaminated rinse water too often get corrected after consumers get sick. And as factory farms and processors ship nationally, if not globally, eggs, lettuce, and hamburger can be as insidious as biological weapons.
"We've focused on tracing back to the source of contamination after the fact," Olson said. "The whole purpose of modernizing the system is to prevent people from getting sick in the first place."
The FDA, which now inspects plants about once a decade, would have to do it more often under the new law. Big producers would be required to have plans for identifying and correcting safety lapses. (Small farms and facilities would be largely exempted.) Imported foods would be subject for the first time to U.S. standards.
The FDA would also have authority to recall foods linked to illness. The need for that was clear last year, when Westco Fruit & Nut Inc. refused for weeks to recall peanut products possibly contaminated with salmonella, even as thousands of consumers nationwide got sick.
Another reason prevention is crucial comes from the CDC report: 80 percent of illness linked to food is due to agents that haven't even been identified.
"We just keep discovering more and more organisms that make people sick," Olson said.