Having a hard time keeping up with the onslaught of food-oriented legislation? Get ready for the next round. The Food Safety Bill is scheduled to hit the Senate floor this week, after having been eclipsed by menu labeling laws and health care reform for months. The bill could help make the lives of restaurateurs' easier and their businesses safer by setting up a better-regulated food supply. Specifically, it seeks to empower the FDA with more authority over food manufacturers, giving the agency mandatory recall authority and the power to require food facilities to maintain stronger safety plans. The legislation also is focused on more frequent processing plant inspections and expanding traceback capabilities. But while the bill is clearly aimed at food providers and manufacturers, restaurateurs are responsible a certain degree at the end of the chain. Just how much is still a matter of debate.
Legislated food safety: More expensive for restaurants? Restaurant industry leaders such as the National Restaurant Association have come out in support the bill's cause, even with the increased scrutiny and cooperation that more FDA authority over food recalls and safety will bring them. But those leaders also question whether one version of the bill's restaurant-related verbiage goes too far. Maureen Ryan, spokesperson for the NRA, said the agency supports both House and Senate versions, believing the bill could improve the safety of products purchased by restaurants in part by increasing inspection at food manufacturing and storage facilities. "It also gives the FDA the tools it needs to refocus on prevention," she said. But there are also provisions in the House bill related to traceability that the association favors less. Section 112 would require restaurateurs to keep records and file reports through the Reportable Food Registry. The registry is currently a voluntary tool for reporting suspect food. But actually requiring restaurants to use the feature "could mean significant administrative compliance costs for restaurants — without really doing anything to enhance food safety," Ryan said. There's no specific language on the exact requirements of this provision, so what costs that requirement may mean is unclear. The section's language so far simply requires restaurant owners to submit a report to the FDA if they come across any data or information that indicates a food could cause "serious adverse health consequences." Stan Hazan, senior director of regulatory affairs and association programs for NSF International, maintains that the bill is "mostly aimed at supply chain up to the retailer or the restaurant." Still, he said it will likely mean that each food facility will need a new or better food safety plan. He said operators concerned about how it will affect their industry should familiarize themselves with section 112, 106 and 107 of the House bill. The latter two mainly pertain to maintenance of food supplier records. Another way: restaurants and voluntary food safety standards If such language is struck from the bill, restaurants still are increasingly augmenting their efforts to participate in the war on foodborne illnesses. NSF vice president of supply chain food safety Tom Chestnut said he was particularly heartened by talk of increased restaurant participation in the Global Food Safety Initiative at the International Food Safety Conference in Atlanta in March. The Belgium-based GFSI is a self-governing program that promotes food safety through unifying food safety management schemes, improving cost efficiency of these effort, and sharing best practices. The widely respected European program includes participants such as Wal-Mart and US Foodservice. About 3,000 certified restaurants and institutions participate in the program worldwide. In the states, slightly more than 20 retailers and distributors have begun requiring it of their food processors. Doing so has it's benefits. "It requires much more extensive auditing process for food producers, and a more formal certification program around food safety," Chestnut said. "We've seen huge growth in that sector for the past two years," he said. "It was on the minds of people at the conference, which represents a major step. It's retailers saying we can implement something that will bring a higher degree of (foodservice safety) to the supply chain." *Flickr photo by Muy Yum