North Bay food products companies are gearing up to comply with a new federal law that calls for more stringent prevention of food-borne sicknesses.

[caption id="attachment_79284" align="alignright" width="360"] Workers at Amy’s Kitchen are constantly aware of food safety, according to Nancy Knight, technical services manager.[/caption]

The Food Safety Modernization Act (fda.gov/FSMA, pronounced “fizma” in the food industry) seeks to prevent microbial contamination from forming in the first place with a process of hazard analysis.

“We’re really looking forward to full implementation of FSMA,” said Nancy Knight, technical services manager for Petaluma-based Amy’s Kitchen. The company has food-production plants in Santa Rosa, Medford, Ore., and the United Kingdom.

Amy’s natural and organic foods operations, well-staffed with microbiologists and Davis-trained food specialists, already has the hazard analysis process in place, she said.

“But we’ve had trouble finding food specialists for verification of foreign imports," Ms. Knight said. "We hope FSMA will result in a lot more of them becoming available.”

Also well-ahead of the curve is La Tortilla Factory in Santa Rosa. The maker of healthful tortillas and wraps has been rated "superior" by the American Institute of Baking for the last 10 years.

“Quality and food safety are at the forefront of our operations, and we stay up to date with all the changes to FSMA," said Julia Cooper, quality assurance manager.

The roots of FSMA were planted in 1937. A chemist at pharmaceutical manufacturer S.E. Massengill Company in Tennessee mixed raspberry flavoring with a sulfa drug and the solvent diethylene glycol and called the preparation "elixir sulfanilamide."

Taken to market in September of that year, the medicine killed 100 people within months and caused such outrage across the nation that Congress passed the first true food manufacturing reform act in U.S. history.

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act finally gave some teeth to the Food and Drug Administration, formed earlier in the century but hobbled by food manufacturing lobbyists. The act required companies to perform animal safety tests on their proposed new drugs and submit the data to the FDA before being allowed to market their products.  

“Before 1938 there were no regulations in place at all,” said David Acheson, a former associate commissioner of the FDA and a major mover and shaker behind the Food Safety Modernization Act. The act will change the way companies import, grow, manufacture and sell food.

“With the exception of the 1938 act, which mostly impacted drug makers, food manufacturing rules haven’t changed since the 1800s,” said Dr. Acheson.

But food-borne illnesses have. Large commercial food manufacturing operations and national distribution systems have allowed contaminated food to travel more quickly and more widely than ever before. Several dramatic cases of salmonella and e-coli-caused fatalities have spurred Congress to act once again, this time to give the FDA the power to recall foods.

FSMA goes farther than recalling food after the fact.

“Every point where contamination might take place is noted, and measures to discover it put in place ahead of time,” said Dr. Acheson. “Also put in place are damage control measures if food contamination is suspected, including recall.”

Documentation is required from field to final sale to consumer, so that an affected food can be traced quickly to its source. All this will be monitored by accredited food safety specialists, including foreign specialists for imported foods.

Dr. Acheson and a committee are currently formulating the rules, qualifications for accredited specialists and ways to make it easier for small growers and food manufacturers to comply. He expects the final iteration of the act to go into effect in about two years, although many of the documentation provisions are already in effect.

The FSMA formulating group is asking for input from the food growing, processing and retailing community.