The Food and Drug Administration released new rules Friday aimed at making sure that fresh produce and imported foods are free of dangerous germs and other contaminants.
The new rules require importers and producers to make sure the food is clean, and provide for outside auditors to check into procedures at foreign food suppliers. Currently, the FDA waits until there are outbreaks and then responds to them — often far too late to save people from eating food that makes them sick.
Now, the industry has a responsibility to stop outbreaks before they happen, said Dr. Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods.
"The recent multistate outbreak of Salmonella in imported cucumbers that has killed four Americans, hospitalized 157 and sickened hundreds more, is exactly the kind of outbreak these rules can help prevent," Taylor said.
"For the first time these rules are going to require producers, growers and importers to ensure that the food they produce or import has minimal contamination," said Sandra Eskin, who directs food safety research at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"These rules are terrific. They bring us much closer to a safer food system."
It's the FDA's latest batch of rules required by the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act. The last set, published in September, covered processed foods.
Contaminated food is an extremely common problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that germs in food make 48 million Americans sick every year — that's one out of six people. About 128,000 are made sick enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
Some of the worst examples in recent years include an outbreak of listeria traced to Colorado cantaloupe that sickened at least 147 people and killed 33 of them in 2011, and an outbreak of cyclospora disease from Mexican cilantro that made more than 380 people sick this past summer.
Most recently, an outbreak of E. coli traced to Chipotle outlets in Washington and Oregon made at least 42 people sick. Health officials haven't been able to find the source.
In fact, the source of such outbreaks is often never identified. That's one reason the FDA and other agencies want to stop them at the source, before food ever gets into stores.
"The law makes the entity that is importing food, whether it is produce or peanut butter or cheese, responsible for the safety of the food it imports," Eskin told NBC News.
That includes spot-testing, say, a batch of spinach to make sure it isn't contaminated with E. coli bacteria, or testing water that mangoes are washed in to make sure they aren't being dunked into a bath of salmonella.
Right now, producers and importers can do this voluntarily. The new rules make it mandatory for everyone.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that imported food accounts for about 19 percent of the U.S. food supply. More than half of all fresh fruit and 22 percent of fresh vegetables are imported.
The FDA needs $110 million to pay for the program. Currently, Congress has provided for about half of this. "We are hopeful they will get more money," Eskin said.
"This money is essential," Taylor told reporters.
"This will help us train FDA and state food safety staff on the new system, fund our state partners to work with farmers on produce safety, provide technical assistance to small farms and food businesses, and successfully implement the new import system that U.S. consumers deserve and Congress envisioned," Taylor added.