WASHINGTON – US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), announced new legislation that would expand the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authority to investigate other potential sources of food contamination beyond the root cause of an outbreak.

The Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act of 2019 would authorize the FDA to conduct microbial sampling at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as part of a foodborne illness outbreak investigation or address other public health issues. Gillibrand introduced the bill this week in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Consumer Federation of America have endorsed the bill.

“Thanksgiving should be a time for celebration, but with large, family meals comes the fear of food contamination that can lead to scary, and sometimes life-threatening illness. Foodborne illness makes tens of millions of Americans sick every year, and it is vital we work to prevent it and stop it from spreading,” Gillibrand said. “I’m proud to announce the Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act, which would allow the FDA to fully investigate the sources of foodborne illness outbreaks. This would help stop the spread of the disease and help prevent future outbreaks. I urge my colleagues to support this bill and help improve food safety.”

The legislation comes as FDA investigates another foodborne illness outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown in California. In 2018, FDA investigated a possible link between a CAFO and a canal used to irrigate romaine lettuce crops in Yuma, Arizona. The crop from that farm was linked with a multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses, but the investigation failed to uncover the root cause of the outbreak. The CSPI said investigators were limited in their ability to test for pathogens on a CAFO next to the canal.

According to Gillibrand, the FDA is limited to investigating produce farms where an outbreak originated which does not consider if a nearby animal farm contributed to the contamination. The Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act would empower the FDA to coordinate with state and local public health agencies, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in order to better determine the source of outbreaks by giving agencies authority to investigate contamination from nearby farms.

“Including animal farms as part of the outbreak investigation is critical because farm animals carry germs that can contaminate not just our meat and poultry, but also our fresh fruits and vegetables,” CSPI said. “Investigators must have the ability to track outbreaks back to the farm so we can understand how these pathogens move through the food system, which is ultimately the key to preventing future outbreaks.”