FDA proposes new rules for food

The Food and Drug Administration proposed on Friday two sweeping rules aimed at preventing the contamination of produce and processed foods, taking a long-awaited step toward codifying the food safety law that Congress passed two years ago.

The proposed rules represent a sea change in the way the agency polices food, a process that currently involves swinging into action after food contamination has been identified rather than preventing it before it hits grocery shelves.

The rules range from requirements for better record-keeping and contingency plans for handling outbreaks to measures that would prevent the spread of contaminants in the first place, by requiring farmers to ensure that water used in irrigation is clean, for example, or that food processors prevent fresh food that may contain bacteria from coming into contact with food that has been cooked. New safety measures could be as simple as requiring farmworkers to wash their hands or installing portable toilets in fields.


Whether consumers will ultimately bear some of the cost of the new rules was unclear. But the FDA commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, said a big question remaining to be resolved is whether Congress will approve the money to support the oversight needed to ensure compliance and enforcement of the new rules. The president requested $220 million, to be financed largely by fees, in his 2013 budget, but Hamburg conceded that ‘‘resources remain an ongoing concern.’’

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Nonetheless, FDA officials were optimistic that the new rules would better protect consumers.

“These new rules really set the basic framework for a modern, science-based approach to food safety and shifts us from a strategy of reacting to problems to a strategy for preventing problems,’’ Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA, said in an interview.

The FDA is responsible for the safety of about 80 percent of the food that the nation consumes. The remainder of the burden falls to the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat, poultry, and some eggs. One in 6 Americans becomes ill from eating contaminated food each year, the government estimates; of those, roughly 130,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

Congress passed the groundbreaking Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010 after a wave of incidents involving tainted eggs, peanut butter, and spinach sickened thousands of people and led major foodmakers to join consumer advocates in demanding stronger government oversight.


But it took the Obama administration two years to move the rules through the FDA, prompting accusations by advocates that the White House was more concerned about protecting itself from Republican criticism than about public safety.