President Obama’s signing of Food Safety Modernization Act into law last week made big news and ushered in the first major overhaul of America’s food safety system since 1938. Media coverage of several high-profile recalls—eggs, spinach, lettuce, meat products, peanut butter, and sprouts—helped fuel broad-based support from consumers, food industry players, and lawmakers from both parties. Even so, the bill took more than a year to pass, and some in the Senate now are threatening to gut funding for its implementation.

But beyond the politics, those of us who eat may be wondering: Will this law make the food on my table safer? Delicious Living magazine talked with three food-safety experts to get their take.

Important first step

“It’s a big start, a good start,” says Drew Falkenstein, an attorney who represents victims of foodborne illnesses, about the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). “It signals a significant culture change as far as regulation goes.” The shift is long overdue, says Barbara Kowalcyk, director of food safety at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention. “The way we distribute food has changed drastically in the last 70 years; we need to bring our food oversight system into the 20th century.”

What FSMA does

Gives the FDA mandatory recall power In the past, the FDA requested and negotiated recalls. “If a company drags its feet with a perishable product, the food has often already been consumed by the time the recall is in place,” says Kowalcyk, whose son died from an E. coli 157 infection from meat in 2001, and who is now a prominent food-safety advocate getting her PhD in environmental health.

Steps up inspections. FDA inspectors will visit the riskiest food production sites on a 5-year cycle or shorter, as opposed to an average 10 years in the past. “More FDA inspector boots on the ground will be a big incentive for some producers to do things differently; hopefully we won’t find any more 6-foot piles of manure,” Falkenstein says, referring to deplorable conditions recently found at the Wright County Egg. 

Strengthens oversight of imported food. The FDA now can block imports that don’t meet standards. Imported-food safety is an area of growing concern for many Americans: More than half of U.S. fresh produce and 80 percent of our seafood is now imported.

Requires food producers and processors to register with the FDA and keep written records of food safety procedures. “The FDA is responsible for supervising 80 percent of our foods supply, and currently, they don’t even know who’s producing food,” says Kowalcyk.

Bolsters “traceability.”Increasingly,people want to know where foods and ingredients they consume come from. More data and documentation also will make it easier to pinpoint problems quickly, where the system failed in the past, as with the peanut butter scare.

Still a long way to go

“Foodborne illnesses won’t drop off the table in 2011,” admits Falkenstein. Both experts say FSMA’s protective effects will take time to become apparent. The key, says Kowalcyk, will be adequate funding. She also says we need to integrate USDA, FDA, and other federal agency data and inspection efforts, as several European countries have already done.

How to risk of food borne illness

“All foods carry risk,” says Kowalcyk. “Americans aren’t used to thinking this way, though our grandparents did.” From farm to table, she says, all parties need to work to reduce risk—but even if you do everything right, you may still get an FBI. At restaurants, in particular, you don’t have much control. Try to choose reputable places, but remember, you aren’t seeing the kitchen.

Be aware of high-risk foods. Decide what level of risk you are comfortable with. Pregnant women, children, and the elderly should be especially cautious. Because of her son’s experience, Kowalcyksays she doesn’t let her children eat foods known to carry E. coli 157: beef, ground meat, spinach, some lettuce, cantaloupe, bean sprouts. Raw milk and raw milk-based cheeses can carry E. coli, salmonella, and listeriaas can cold cuts, hot dogs, and other ready-to-eat fare.

Learn about the long-tem health effects of FBIs.These infections have been linked to reactive arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, renal failure, diabetes, and more. For more information, go to foodborneillness.org.

Use a meat thermometer. Don’t rely on smell or color to determine doneness; foods cook unevenly. And it’s not just meat: The E.coli bacteria was inside spinach leaves, says Kowalcyk; the only way to kill it would have been to heat it over 165 degrees.

Follow good food safety rules in your kitchen. Foodsafety.gov’s Basics are: Clean (hands and surfaces frequently); Separate (meats from other foods, in particular); Cook (to proper temperature); and Chill (refrigerate promptly).

If you get sick, report it. Go see your doctor and contact your local public health office. Bloody diarrhea, in particular, may be an indicator of a serious problem. Go to the ER and get tested, recommends Kowalcyk. All FBI reports contribute to greater public health.

Demand safe food. You vote with your dollar, so support producers with good reputations as well as pushes for increased accountability and documentation.