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'New era' of food safety rules ushered in by FDA

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Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

New federal food safety rules aim to prevent contamination outbreaks — such as the one that left four dead and more than 650 sick from a Chi Chi's restaurant in Beaver County in 2003 — according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA on Friday announced it will begin a 120-day public-comment period on Jan. 16 on the most sweeping food safety rule changes proposed in decades.

The measures, first proposed in 2010, will require farmers and food companies to be more vigilant as a result of recent deadly outbreaks linked to contaminated food.

“In the past, we have been using an inspection-and-enforcement model to keep the food supply safe,” said Pat El-Hinnawy, an FDA spokeswoman. “These (new) rules aim to make prevention the focus of what everyone in the food system does.”

Don Kretschmann, who grows produce on 30 of the 80 acres on his farm in New Sewickley, Beaver County, said following the new rules should not be a problem “as long as they are reasonable.”

“A lot of farmers are concerned that complying with these rules could be difficult if they go beyond what is practical and reasonable,” Kretschmann said. “Our main concern has always been that the food we produce is safe. After all, we eat it, too.”

The rules cover all food production except meat and poultry, which the Department of Agriculture regulates, El-Hinnawy said.

Last summer, outbreaks of listeria in cheese and salmonella in peanut butter, mangoes and cantaloupe led to more than 400 illnesses and as many as seven deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2004, Roma tomatoes tainted by the salmonella virus — and served in Sheetz convenience stores — sickened at least 416 people in 31 Pennsylvania counties and four other states. Sheetz is based in Altoona.

In 2011, Brunton Dairy in Beaver County stopped bottling milk for several months when a number of people developed symptoms from the Yersinia enterocolitica virus after drinking pasteurized milk.

The Chi Chi's outbreak was the result of green onions from Mexico that were tainted with hepatitis A.

New safety rules for foods imported into the United States, which account for more than 15 percent of the food supply, should be ready in the next several months, according to FDA Deputy Commissioner Mike Taylor, who characterized the rules as the start of “a new era.”

“We should have fewer outbreaks, fewer illnesses and less disruption of the food supply,” Taylor said.

Food-borne illness sickens an estimated one in six Americans every year, with nearly 130,000 hospitalized, according to the CDC. The centers estimate that about 3,000 die of their illnesses.

The FDA's proposed rules would require, among other things, that farmers take new precautions against contamination, such as making sure workers wash their hands, irrigation water is tested to ensure it is clean, and animals stay out of fields.

Food manufacturers will have to submit food safety plans to the government that demonstrate they maintain clean operations.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987or Associated Press contributedto this report.

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