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Food-borne illnesses kill as many as 3,000 Americans each year, but consumers should not expect new Food and Drug Administration regulations to help.
These rules, being drafted to implement last year's food-safety law, will waste billions of dollars on antiquated practices unlikely to do much good. They will, however, aid giant food corporations by hobbling smaller competitors and make it harder for companies of all sizes to adopt innovative safety methods and technologies.
Enacted in response to 2010's massive egg recall, the law will spend nearly $1 billion to double the number of inspections on farms and in food processing facilities. That may sound appealing, but it only means that most facilities will be inspected every five years instead of every 10. Designated "high-risk" facilities would be inspected just once every three years.
More inspections would not have prevented the egg outbreak or this year's cantaloupe recall, however, because a visual examination cannot detect the microbes that cause most food-safety problems. Facilities that look clean can pass inspection because you simply cannot see bacteria.
The new regulations will also require food processors and vegetable growers to adopt risk-prevention controls. Implemented flexibly, they can help producers tailor risk-reduction efforts to their individual circumstances — which is why most major food companies adopted them voluntarily years ago.
When the rules are implemented by regulators, however, they tend to impose the same rigid, costly and out-of-date practices on every producer and stifle innovation. That's why big food companies supported the law: Its one-size-fits-all approach will bury smaller competitors under rules and paperwork designed for major multinational businesses.
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With the economy slumping and the food industry devastated by record droughts, the FDA may be waiting until after the November elections to finalize these burdensome new rules. But since they will do little to improve food safety, consumers would be better served if the agency abandoned them altogether.