Five years ago, Congress promised an overhaul of the nation's food safety system, passing the Food Safety Modernization Act.
It took much longer than expected, but the Food and Drug Administration has now released the centerpiece — or at least, the most contested — part of that overhaul. These are rules that cover farmers who grow fresh produce, as well as food importers.
"This is a giant step forward," said Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods.
Earlier drafts of the regulations on vegetable farming generated howls of protest. The rules are intended to prevent disease-causing bacteria from contaminating vegetables that people often eat raw.
But small farmers, in particular, complained that some requirements, such as those calling for regular testing of irrigation water, were onerous and costly. Organic farmers protested against restrictions on the use of manure for fertilizer.
The final regulations contain compromises on some of those requirements. The FDA is conducting more research on the risks of using fresh manure, but in the meantime, it "does not object" to farmers simply following rules that already govern the use of manure in organic farming.
New regulations on food importers, meanwhile, require them to have programs in place to verify that their foreign suppliers are taking just as many safety precautions as farmers in the U.S. And the FDA will check up, sending safety inspectors around the world to visit food suppliers.
Both rules will start to go into effect in two years. Enforcing the new rules will require a boost in the FDA's budget, and Congress will have to approve it. "It will not succeed without resources," said the FDA's Taylor.