Two years ago, there was a nationwide outbreak of E. coli linked to consumption of contaminated spinach from a California supplier. That was the 25th reported U.S. outbreak of E. coli infection that had been traced to contaminated leafy green vegetables since 1993. Each year, approximately 110,000 persons get this infection, and 50 of them die. This is despite greatly intensified efforts during the past decade on the part of federal food-safety agencies — the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — to prevent the spread of such infections.

In a 2008 outbreak, Salmonella was diagnosed in 1407 persons in 43 states. At least 282 patients were hospitalized, and 2 patients died. Although initial epidemiologic evidence suggested that contamination of tomatoes grown in the southwestern United States might be the cause, eventually the outbreak was isolated from jalapeño and serrano peppers that had been grown on a Mexican farm. In the mean time, tomato consumption plummeted, and the industry lost an estimated $200 million in sales.

This year, the disease was diagnosed in 600 persons in 44 states and Canada traced to contamination of one Georgia producer’s peanut butter and the processed foods of other manufacturers that contained the company’s peanut butter or paste. Beyond a recall of all peanut products produced by the company since January 1, 2008, more than 400 food products (including cookies, crackers, cereal, candy, ice cream, and pet foods) have been recalled.

Many of incidents like these have led to products liability and mass tort litigation. E.g., In Re ConAgra Peanut Butter Products Liability Litigation, MDL-1845, 2008 WL 2885951 (N.D. Ga., July 22, 2008). And this issue has caught Congress’ attention. Senator Durbin last week introduced S.510, the “FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” a new bill to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to the safety of the food supply. The bill calls for food manufacturers to conduct a Hazard Analysis and implement Risk-Based Preventive Controls; it calls for regulations to establish science-based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of those types of fruits and vegetables that are raw agricultural commodities for which the agency has determined that such standards minimize the risk of serious adverse health consequences or death.

The bill also calls for inspection of food makers’ facilities, according to their risk profile, based on the facility’s history of food recalls, outbreaks, and violations of food safety standards, and the rigor of the facility’s hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls. Some facilities would be designated as high-risk facilities and subject to annual inspections. the proposed legislation would also upgrade the nation’s food-borne illness surveillance systems to improve the collection, analysis, reporting, and usefulness of data on food-borne illnesses by coordinating Federal, State and local food-borne illness surveillance systems, including complaint systems, and increasing participation in national networks of public health and food regulatory agencies and laboratories.

Regarding imports, the bill would require each United States importer to perform risk-based foreign supplier verification activities, and the FDA would be required to establish by 2010 an office in not less than 5 new foreign countries to provide assistance to the appropriate governmental entities of such countries with respect to measures to provide for the safety of articles of food and other products regulated by the FDA and exported by such country to the United States.