LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The House yesterday joined the Senate in approving the first major update to food safety laws in 70 years. NPR's April Fulton tells us what this will mean for consumers.
APRIL FULTON: It's been a rough couple of years for the food business. Contaminated eggs, peanut butter and peppers have made headlines for making people sick. About 48 million people a year get a food-borne illness, 3,000 people die. But the food safety bill is supposed to make some changes. I wanted to find out what those changes will mean when we go shopping. So I asked Sandra Eskin to meet me at a neighborhood grocery store.
Ms. SANDRA ESKIN (Food Safety Campaign, Pew Foundation): Hi, April.
FULTON: Eskin heads the Food Safety Campaign for the Pew Foundation. And she wanted to start where most shoppers start: with the fruits and vegetables.
Ms. ESKIN: We're standing here in the produce section, where you have leafy greens - lettuce, spinach, arugula - products that have been, unfortunately, linked to numerous outbreaks and recalls in recent years.
FULTON: She says one of the reasons greens can be risky is because there are so many steps to get them to market. Under the bill, produce growers will have to pay more attention to every point where bad bacteria can get in.
Ms. ESKIN: That could be the water that's used to irrigate. That could be manure or any other type of fertilizer.
FULTON: The bill will make produce processors develop a plan to keep food safe from contaminants. It's something the meat industry's done for years. The government can review those plans, and Eskin says this will lead to fewer recalls.
Ms. ESKIN: It's very important that we get it right in terms of recalls - not only for public health reasons, but also for economic reasons.
FULTON: For example, people stopped buying all kinds of spinach after the 2006 outbreak of E. coli, even though the recall was tied to raw spinach from a single farm. Spinach sales are still down.
Just past the veggies are the meats. But Eskin and I walk right by them.
Ms. ESKIN: This bill does not address meat or poultry.
FULTON: So we head down the international aisle.
Ms. ESKIN: Dozens and dozen of Asian products: sauces, rice noodles, meals, fortune cookies, soy sauce.
FULTON: And more from Latin America and elsewhere. Imported foods make up more than 13 percent of our diet. But FDA inspectors only get around to checking about 1 percent.
Ms. ESKIN: What the bill does is it sets up a system where the importer is responsible for assuring the safety of the product.
FULTON: Speaking of safety, we head over to check out the eggs.
Ms. ESKIN: These are very risky foods.
FULTON: Just this past summer, almost 2,000 people got sick from eating eggs contaminated with salmonella. Those eggs were traced to two producers in Iowa that had never been inspected by the FDA. This bill might keep something like that from happening again. It's going to add about 18,000 new government food inspectors.
The new bill would also give the FDA a power it didn't have before: the power to actually recall tainted foods. Right now, it has to negotiate with companies on the terms of a voluntary recall. And there's one more change consumers will notice maybe more than any other.
Ms. ESKIN: Because all of us want to be extra sure that our families are not being fed contaminated foods.
FULTON: So you'll see a recall notice in an obvious place, like right beside where the food usually sits.
Ms. ESKIN: That is very important. Many people don't know for sure if the product they're buying is, in fact, potentially contaminated.
FULTON: The new notice would give consumers information about what's being recalled and what they can do if they've already bought it.
You won't see these changes right away, though. It will take the FDA a couple of years to write the new rules. And Sandra Eskin says hopefully fewer people will get sick from bad food.
April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.