Lots of factors helped push the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act over the finish line more than a dozen years after it was first proposed - including an unusual alliance that teamed consumer advocates, victims groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Philadelphia's Pew Charitable Trusts.
The bill signed into law last week by President Obama reflects a long-delayed recognition of the obvious: U.S. food-industry regulators were trying to face 21st-century challenges with a tool chest last updated in the 1930s.
How big is the food-safety problem? Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its widely quoted estimates based on the latest science. The CDC says foodborne diseases sicken about 48 million Americans each year - one in six of us. About 3,000 people die from the diseases each year, and 128,000 are hospitalized.
Even so, foodborne threats remain largely unrecognized, since you generally can't see evidence of bacterial, viral, or other contaminants in your food. Familiar "food poisoning," in which victims suffer swift, violent reactions to toxins excreted by foodborne pathogens, is just a small part of the problem.
"It's usually not the meal you just had," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food-safety expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Instead, the source of a foodborne illness may be something you consumed days earlier.
The salmonella carried in eggs, for instance, can take several days to incubate within your body before symptoms occur - the fever, cramping, and diarrhea that many people likely dismiss as "a stomach bug." Since only the sickest victims are hospitalized, the vast majority of cases are never traced to their source. Egregious examples of sloppy practices are often overlooked - at least until they do widespread damage.
At its heart, the FDA modernization is designed to move the agency away from its historical function of reacting to outbreaks and investigating their causes and toward a role of ensuring that food producers and importers prevent contamination and foodborne disease before they occur.
DeWaal is among those who have been pushing for a more proactive approach since the 1990s, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted a hazard-reduction approach to its regulation of meat and poultry producers.
For a time, advocates like DeWaal focused on proposals to unify our oddly balkanized system of food regulation, under which the USDA oversees meat and poultry production but the FDA is responsible for nearly everything else, including milk, fresh eggs, fish, produce, and processed foods - along, of course, with the various states' agencies that take greater or lesser roles.
The division of duties leads to uneven protection. Two decades ago, for instance, Pennsylvania became a leader in egg-safety regulation aimed at minimizing the spread of salmonella infecting the state's chicken flocks. President Clinton proposed a national egg-safety rule in 1999, but it took the FDA more than a decade to finally adopt rules similar to Pennsylvania's - too late for the tens of thousands of people sickened last year by tainted eggs.
What finally moved Congress to act? Sadly, part of the answer is plainly the usual one: money.
The 2009 recall of products linked to a Georgia plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America epitomized the problem, by doing enormous downstream damage to the nation's food producers, according to Erik Olson of the Pew Health Group.
Olson, who joined Pew in early 2009 and established a new coalition, Make Our Food Safe, says that lone plant supplied peanuts used in more than 3,000 products that eventually had to be recalled.
"It ended up that one factory could contaminate an enormous number of different foods," Olson says. One producer, Kellogg, told Congress that the peanut recall cost it more than $60 million. An economic analysis that Pew funded put the total annual health-related cost of foodborne illness at $152 billion.
Those kinds of numbers helped Olson forge an alliance that linked its Make Our Food Safe coalition, which included the American Public Health Association, consumer advocates, and victims groups, with industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
With the food producers behind it, the FDA modernization managed to win support from the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce - groups that typically recoil in horror at stronger regulation.
Olson says the traditional advocates laid the groundwork, and Pew added its resources and expertise.
Ultimately, though, food safety just became too big a problem to continue to ignore.
Contact columnist Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or email@example.com.
For more information, go to www.makeourfoodsafe.org.