The safety and healthiness of about 80% of America's food supply is theoretically in the hands of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but until recently, that agency had extremely limited powers with which to police the safety of our food. Until two years ago, the FDA's role was limited to being reactive – stepping in only after outbreaks of food-borne bacteria occurred. The 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act theoretically changed that, and gave the agency the power to become more proactive, and to actually work to prevent food-borne illnesses.
Recently (and an indication of the slow-moving bureaucracy that hamstrings the FDA) rules have been finally (two years later) drafted that give the Food Safety Modernization Act some "teeth," and implement some of the proactive elements of the law. This is important because every year food-borne illnesses kill at least 3,000 people and send 130,000 more to hospitals. The newly-drafted rules belatedly give the FDA the power to prevent the spread of contaminants in food. These rules dictate to food manufacturers more stringent record-keeping procedures and contingency plans for handling reported or suspected outbreaks of food contamination. They also implement things that should have been mandated decades ago, such as food workers and farm workers being legally required to wash their hands, ensuring that portable toilets be installed in all farm fields (imagine the alternative!), and that any prepared foods have to be cooked at high enough temperatures to kill potentially dangerous bacteria. So far, so good.
That said, critics of the FDA say that the new rules don't go far enough, and that much of our nation's food supply remains unsafe. And with all of the budget constraints in the news these days, there is an open question as to whether Congress will provide enough funds even to implement these first small rules, let alone enable other, more far-reaching rules and standards. This is more than a pity, and almost a tragedy, because in addition to the numbers of people sickened by the food-borne bacteria noted above, every year an additional 300,000 people are sickened by preventable diet-related conditions such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. These critics point out that these conditions are caused not by E. coli, salmonella, and other pathogens, but by the nutritionally-empty nature of the foods we eat. And so far, the FDA has demonstrated neither the willingness nor the ability to tackle this larger problem.
Our diet today is not what it was 60 years ago
Many of the rules and guidelines that the FDA operates under were established back when family farms were still prevalent, and when "prepared foods" were still rare, limited to canned foods and a few boxed items such as "make it yourself" macaroni and cheese, which you still had to boil and mix together yourself. The first frozen pizza did not appear until 1951.
In the time since, family farms have given way to huge, industrialized farms, run by corporations intent on making a profit, and using any and all means to ensure that profit. The same is true of meat packers, and even more true of the food manufacturers who now supply our seemingly endless need for packed and pre-prepared foods, not to mention fast foods and junk foods. Again, these industries are run by people whose primary focus is the financial bottom line, not the health of the people consuming their products. If the company can make more of a profit by creating genetically-modified fruits and vegetables, or by using high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar, they're going to do it. And at present, the FDA has neither the rules in place to prevent them from doing it, or the funds to enforce more stringent rules if they drafted them.
Big problem, no easy solutions
Americans currently get approximately 70% of the total calories they consume from highly processed foods. These "food products" (as opposed to actual food) are all too often high in fat, calories, sodium, sugar, additives and refined grain products, and low in actual nutrients. Over 5,000 substances are regularly added to the foods we eat, and at present the FDA has zero knowledge of at least 1,000 of them, and has no budget to perform toxicological tests on the other 4,000. As a nation, we have literally "outsourced" the preparation of the foods we eat to people who cannot be trusted to prepare them properly.
The result is that much of our food supply is not only unsafe because it contains contaminants, but it is unsafe because it contains very little actual food. The new rules drafted by the FDA to implement the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act are a good start, and the agency should be commended for at least starting. But there is still a long way to go before our food supply can be considered either safe or healthy, and they need to go much, much further, and do it much more quickly than they have in the past.