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That's no thanks to the FDA.
“Even when it does uncover health violations at food-processing plants,” wrote Barry Estabrook in Mother Jones in November, “the FDA takes enforcement action in only about half of the cases and almost never imposes fines.
In other words, foodborne illness cases have been decreasing without the FSMA, fewer FDA inspections over a period of several years did not translate into any detectable difference in cases of foodborne illness, and even FDA inspections that uncover violations rarely translate into perceptible agency action.
But if the impact of the proposed FSMA rules seems scant in light of these facts, consider the utterly feeble effect these rules would have on the 48 million cases of foodborne illness under the FDA’s own best-case scenario: A four-percent reduction in cases of foodborne illness.
“The new rules could prevent nearly two million illnesses annually, according to the FDA,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer in an editorial supporting adoption of the proposed rules. Indeed, the data estimates come straight from the FDA.
In other words, the proposed rules—if implemented to absolute perfection—would only reduce incidences of foodborne illness from 48,000,000 a year to 46,000,000 a year.
Remember, this is the same agency that claims its FSMA is a key tool to help eliminate the “largely preventable” problem of foodborne illnesses.
Critics of my argument might contend that these are just the first of several regulations the FDA will propose in order to implement the FSMA.
That’s true. But while there are still three "FSMA Provisions in the Works," they appear to be even less impactful than the expensive and pathetic rules proposed this month. Two rules “in the works” apply solely to imported foods—which are responsible for just a tiny percentage of foodborne illness cases. Another would "enhance" the "capacities" of foreign and domestic food-safety agencies at the federal, state, and local levels—which is agency-speak for things like training and technical assistance, white papers, guidance documents, conferences, and the like.
So anyone waiting for future FSMA rules to provide more bang for their buck is likely to be even more disappointed with the next set of proposed rules.
"I'm really not confident—doing the math, based on the FDA's figures,” I said in a television appearance to discuss the rules last week, “that there's going to be the sort of impact that the FDA's promising.”
That was last week. The more I learn about and reflect on the proposed regulations—which number more than 1,000 pages in length—the more I want Congress and the FDA to stop trying to do as much as possible in the area of food safety. Rather, I want the agency—which can by its own most optimistic estimates achieve very little, and at great cost—to focus on doing (and wasting) as little as necessary.