The latest food-safety rules proposed by the Food and Drug Administration would make the agency’s food-safety requirements more similar to those laid down by the US Dept. of Agriculture for the meat, poultry and egg companies it regulates. It’s another step in the long road to toughen FDA rules to increase food safety for the food-processing companies the Dept. of Health and Human Services agency watches over, as well as the state agencies that carry out some of FDA’s regulatory responsibilities.

The most recent FDA actions include requiring both food-processing companies and farms to be more watchful because of deadly outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in recent years caused by green vegetables, cantaloupe and peanuts. One goal of the proposed rules is to help reduce the estimated 3,000 deaths a year attributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to foodborne illness. Since last summer, CDC attributes seven deaths and 400 illnesses linked to Listeria and Salmonella in foods regulated by FDA.

The proposed regulations would require food manufacturers to use hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) plans submitted to the government showing plants are kept clean, and the steps they take to prevent pathogens in their food-making operations.

While meat and poultry plants regulated by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) have been operating under mandatory HACCP plans for the past 13 to 15 years, FDA was only enforcing similar rules for the production of seafood. And while many food processors were operating, at least in part, under HACCP voluntarily, many were not. Under these new rules, all food-processing companies under FDA, as well as those companies FDA delegates regulatory authority to, will have to analyze possible food-safety hazards in their operations, and set up food-safety plans to deal with these hazards.

Government officials are now saying if these food-safety requirements had been imposed earlier, more lives could have been saved and more illnesses prevented. Under the new rules, which are very similar to what meat and poultry companies have been doing going back to 1998 (2000 for small companies), companies will have to write plans for preventing contamination and food-safety problems, keep written records and explain how they would correct problems that develop.

These latest rules come on the heels of earlier regulations written as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed by President Obama two years ago. This 2011 law required FDA to propose first rules a year ago, but the Obama Administration wanted to hold them back until after the election. Supporters of food safety took the administration to court and got the government delay overturned.

In defending the government action, Michael Taylor, who implemented HACCP when he led FSIS, stuck up for the pace of implementation of the new food law and its regulations, saying three other regulations were implemented, as well as nine draft and final guidance documents. He acknowledges the implementation of the FSMA is a slow, gradual process, but will be worth it in the long run. The two regulations implementing mandatory HACCP and food-safety rules for produce had been awaiting final clearance, he says.

As part of the legislation, coming regulations will deal with plant defense, import/export, compliance and transportation safety. Making FDA food-safety activities more like USDA’s was a major goal of the FSMA, and would also ward off attempts to pull food safety into one massive agency, which has no political support.

Bernard Shire, a feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa., is M&P’s Washington correspondent. Shire also works as a food safety consultant for Shire & Associates LLC.