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FDA Finalizes Sweeping Rules to Improve Food Safety

The final touches on the Food Safety Modernization Act are designed to cut down on an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year, the agency said Friday.

Hard fact: Americans love food. So if anything's gonna freak people out, it's the prospect of harmless-looking food that could actually kill them.

Take the high-profile outbreak of E. coli traced to at least eight Chipotle restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. At least a dozen people went to the hospital complaining of severe abdominal pain, prompting the company to close a total of 43 restaurants in Seattle and Portland. (The company says it extensively cleaned and tested all 43 restaurants before they were reopened on Nov. 12, and says it's working with health officials to identify the source of the outbreak.)

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That's just one example. On Tuesday, Tyson Foods recalled more than 52,000 lbs of "off-odor" chicken wings after people who ate them reported getting mildly sick. Back in April, Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries was forced to recall a huge amount of its ice cream after it was linked to 10 cases of listeria, three of them deadly, from 2010 to 2015. And in 2014, the CDC warned Americans to avoid prepackaged caramel-coated apples, which were linked to 28 cases of listeria, at least four of them deadly, in 10 states.

But those types of outbreaks will hopefully come to an end soon, thanks to a sweeping new set of regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designed to improve food safety and proactively cut down on potentially dangerous outbreaks. Foodborne illnesses—potentially dangerous bugs like salmonella, listeria, and E. coli—infect some 48 million Americans each year, killing 3,000, according to data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The latest deadly example: the humble cucumber. “The recent multistate outbreak of Salmonella in imported cucumbers that has killed four Americans, hospitalized 157 and sickened hundreds more, is exactly the kind of outbreak these rules can help prevent,” Michael R. Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in the announcement.

These new rules give the FDA the power to enforce new regulations established by the Food Safety Modernization Act, a landmark law first passed in 2011. They set standards for everything from how produce is grown, shipped, and packed (both domestically and abroad), to how often farmers need to test their water supplies, and even how extensively food importers need to audit their foreign suppliers.

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Some 19% of America's food supply is imported, and that number is even higher for fresh fruit (52%) and vegetables (22%), according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey. A lot of those veggies wind up on the plates of health-conscious eaters.

It'll be a few years before the rules finally take effect, and the FDA has warned that it needs a fully funded budget for the new regulations to have any teeth. But for now, at least, they mark a concrete step forward in cleaning up the good stuff that crosses Americans' plates every day.


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