The Food and Drug Administration on Friday proposed two sweeping rules aimed at preventing the contamination of produce and processed foods, which has sickened tens of thousands of Americans annually in recent years.
• The first rule would require manufacturers of processed foods sold in the U.S. to come up with ways to reduce the risk of contamination. Food companies would be required to have a plan for correcting problems and for keeping records that government inspectors could audit. An example might be to require the roasting of raw peanuts at a temperature guaranteed to kill salmonella, which has been a problem in nut butters in recent years. Roasted nuts would then have to be kept separate from raw nuts.
• The second rule would apply to the harvesting and production of fruits and vegetables in an effort to combat bacterial contamination like E. coli. It would address what advocates refer to as the “four Ws” — water, waste, workers and wildlife. Farmers would establish separate standards for ensuring the purity of water that touches, say, lettuce leaves and the water used to irrigate soil, which reaches plants only through their roots. A farm or plant where vegetables are packaged might, for example, add lavatories to ensure that workers do not urinate in fields.
One in six Americans becomes ill from eating contaminated food each year. The proposed rules, two years in the making, are aimed at reducing the estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness and represent a sea change in the way the agency polices food, a process that currently involves taking action after food contamination has been identified.
The FDA estimates the rules could prevent almost 2 million illnesses annually, but it could be several years before the rules are actually preventing outbreaks.
Whether consumers will ultimately bear some of the expense of the new rules was unclear; the FDA estimated the proposals would cost food producers tens of thousands of dollars a year.
The rules go into effect after a 120-day comment period. Other rules are pending, including one that would cover importers’ responsibilities for the safety of food products from overseas. About 15 percent of food eaten by Americans — and an even higher percentage of produce — is imported.