Improving Food Safety

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the first New York senator to sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, has a comprehensive plan to overhaul the nation's food safety laws by improving inspection, recall response, and public education.  A cornerstone of Senator Gillibrand's plan is new legislation to mandate E. coli inspections of ground beef.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year an estimated 87 million Americans are sickened by contaminated food, 371,000 are hospitalized with food-borne illness, and 5,700 die from food-related disease.  While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made some progress improving food safety regulations, the nation's food safety laws have not been significantly overhauled in more than a century, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Across New York State, approximately 5 million people are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

READ Senator Gillibrand's full report on food safety.

Salmonella is the most common food-borne illness - causing over 1 million illnesses each year in the U.S., according to the CDC. Another 70,000 in America fall victim to E. coli each year. From meat and poultry to peanut butter, fruits and vegetables, almost every type of food we eat each day has the potential for contamination because of outdated, insufficient safeguards and testing processes.

Responsibility for enforcing America's food safety measures is shared by 15 federal agencies - with the FDA and USDA responsible for the bulk of the oversight.  However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is often limited to reactive regulations once outbreaks have already begun instead of preventing contaminations from spreading, and risking the safety of our food and the health of millions.

Senator Gillibrand's plan to improve food safety will streamline and strengthen regulations at the USDA and FDA.  Senator Gillibrand's efforts will also alter the fundamental approach to food safety by focusing on prevention to catch food-borne illnesses, and more quickly preventing further illness when an outbreak is detected.


1. Improve Testing of Ground Beef

 During a 2009 industry-wide sampling of all ground beef produced, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service found that nearly 1 in every 300 samples of ground beef was contaminated with E. coli.  Ground beef is especially vulnerable to E. coli because its source material is not from a single cut of meat, rather, from a compilation of trimmings from many parts, including fat that lies near the surface of possibly contaminated hide. While some grinders that process ground beef voluntarily test the meat before and after grinding, there is currently no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for E. coli.

To reduce the risk of E. coli ending up in the hamburgers and other food we eat, Senator Gillibrand is authoring the E. Coli Eradication Act - new legislation that would require all plants that process ground beef to test their products regularly before it is ground and again before it is combined with other beef or ingredients, such as spices, and packaged. If ground beef is found to be contaminated, the bill requires the company to properly dispose of the contaminated batch, or cook the meat to a temperature that destroys the E. coli.  Senator Gillibrand's legislation will include appropriate penalties for companies that fail to implement testing mechanisms at their facilities. 

2. Improve Regulation of All Other Food

Ground beef isn't the only food infecting people with E. coli and salmonella. Fruits and vegetables can also be contaminated. Senator Gillibrand is co-sponsoring the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act - legislation authored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) that would make comprehensive improvements to the safety of fruits and vegetables, and help prevent outbreaks before they start.

  • Focus on Prevention, requiring all facilities to establish preventive plans to address hazards upfront, prevent adulteration, and give the FDA access to all of these plans and procedures.
  • Expand Access to Records, giving the FDA access to the records of all food processing facilities.
  • Establish Oversight of High Quality Testing Laboratories, by granting the FDA authority to check the credibility of the laboratories testing the safety of food, requiring the labs to report all of their findings to the FDA, and certify that foreign food facilities comply with U.S. food safety standards.
  • Improve Detection, by increasing inspections at all food facilities, including annual inspections of high-risk facilities, and inspections of all facilities once every four years; enhancing food-borne illness surveillance systems to improve the collection, analysis, reporting, and usefulness of data on food-borne illnesses; and creating a pilot project to test and evaluate new methods to quickly and accurately track and trace fruits and vegetables in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak.
  • Enhance U.S. Food Defense Capabilities by helping food companies protect their products from intentional contamination, and commence a national strategy to protect our food supply from terrorist threats, and rapidly respond to food emergencies.
  • Increase FDA Resources, increasing federal investments to give the FDA all the resources it needs to implement comprehensive food safety improvements.

3. Improve Safety of Imported Food

15 percent of America's overall food supply is imported from overseas, including 60 percent of fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.America imports $5.2 billion worth of food from China alone - including 10 percent of our shrimp. In 2007, the FDA issued important alerts for five kinds of farm-raised fish and shrimp from China due to unsafe additives, inadequate labeling and poor manufacturer registrations, as well as potentially harmful veterinary drug residues in farm-raised fish and shrimp.

To ensure the safety of food we import matches the standards of food grown and processed in America, Senator Gillibrand is calling on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to prioritize the hiring of inspectors to protect consumers from contaminated imported food.

In 2003, when the DHS took over the inspection of agricultural products on the border, the position of "agriculture specialists" was created.  While the number of people in this position has been slowly increasing, we are still one-third short of the number of specialists needed to test the ever increasing array of agricultural products coming into the country.

The overall agricultural inspection rate for cargo has declined from nearly 70 percent in 2001 to about 40 percent in 2008 and down to 13 percent for passenger inspections.  Better inspections will not only protect humans from pathogens, but will protect American farms from agricultural pests and disease.

Additionally, Senator Gillibrand will work to require importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food by allowing the FDA to require certification for high-risk foods, and deny entry to a food that lacks certification, or that is from a foreign facility that has refused U.S. inspections.


1. Recall Contaminated Food in School Lunches

Last year, in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that revealed federal agencies are not adequately alerting schools about recalls, Senator Gillibrand introduced the Safe Food for Schools Act - legislation that would protect the 31 million schoolchildren who participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs by requiring federal agencies to issue proper alerts to schools.

2. Make Recalls of Contaminated Food Mandatory

For additional improvements to our food recall processes, Senator Gillibrand will work with her colleagues to give the FDA the authority to order a mandatory recall of a food product when a company fails to voluntarily recall the produce upon FDA's request.  Right now, recalls are only voluntary.


To make sure information about food-borne illnesses and recalls is distributed accurately and efficiently, Senator Gillibrand wrote and introduced the Consumer Recall Notification Act ­- legislation to make sure consumers and health workers know when food recalls are made, require that notices are posted on shelves at food retailers where recalled foods are sold, require that recall notices are sent directly to grocery store members and "loyalty card" users, and ensure that Class I recall information is distributed to health workers.

Specifically, the legislation would:

Notify Consumers
Stores that track customer purchases through customer loyalty cards or membership cards must use that information to notify customers when they have purchased a recalled product. Stores that do not notify customers of Class I recalls will be subject to a $100 penalty per customer.

Distribute Information to Restaurants and Food Retailers
Facilities that have distributed food subject to a Class I recall would be required to notify stores and restaurants within 24 hours of the public announcement of the recall. The FDA will also publish a list on the Internet of all stores and restaurants that received contaminated products. Facilities that do not notify stores and restaurants will be subject to a $1,000 penalty per missed notification. The stores that received products must then post a notice on the shelf unit or freezer case where the contaminated product was sold so that consumers are aware that they might have previously purchased a recalled product, return to their homes and dispose of those products.

Distribute Information to Health Workers
The FDA shall improve communication between states and local health departments when there is a Class I recall by distributing advisories when there is a Class 1 recall to states, local health departments and frontline health professionals, such as emergency departments and pediatricians. The information distributed will include information about symptoms to look out for and test for to diagnose food-borne illness.

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