Groups Urge Action on Food Safety Law
photo -AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
The Food Safety Modernization Act was approved in 2010.
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
Published: July 17, 2012
WASHINGTON — Ten consumer groups that helped promote a landmark food safety law passed in 2010 say the Obama administration is holding up the rules that would put it into effect, a delay they say could cost money and lives this summer, the peak season for food contamination outbreaks.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed with broad bipartisan support, was the first major overhaul of the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety laws since the 1930s. It gives the agency, which is responsible for the safety of most of the country’s food supply, more control over food imports as well as broad new powers to set standards to prevent contamination of produce and processed food.
The law was motivated, in part, by the growing globalization of the nation’s food supply. Food imports have more than tripled over the past decade — about 80 percent of seafood is imported, for example — and currently, the F.D.A. inspects less than one pound in a million of imported foods.
But the F.D.A. rules that are needed to carry out the law have been under review by the Office of Management and Budget in the White House since December, and consumer health advocates say there has been no explanation for what they describe as a lengthy delay.
“It’s frankly a surprise to us,” said Erik D. Olson, director of food programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which was involved in promoting the legislation. “The administration was proud of this accomplishment, and having these things just sit there is quite a juxtaposition.”
Other groups that promoted the law include the American Public Health Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America.
Before the rules become official, the F.D.A. still has to circulate them for public comment, adding more months to the process. The rules for importers were expected in January and for domestic food processors in July, advocates said. The law was supported by many food producers, who saw it as a way to avoid the expense of food recalls.
Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said that the agency coordinates suggestions from many institutions across the federal government, and that it is not unusual for the review process to take months. A regulation last year on dangerous snakes, for example, took about 10 months to clear, she said.
“We are committed to getting it right,” she said.
Advocates pressing for the food safety law to take effect say politics are a possible motivation for the delay. It is election season, they point out, and Democrats may want to avoid the impression that government regulation is growing, a popular cause for attacks by Republicans. But Ms. Mack dismissed this claim, saying politics played no role in the agency’s decision-making process.
The rules will set new safety standards to prevent contamination of fruits and vegetables, including through water, worker hygiene and manure. Food processors will have to draw up food safety plans that identify hazards and the steps they will take to address them, and importers will have to put programs in place that verify the safety of their suppliers’ products.
“It’s a sea change,” Michael Taylor, (FORMER MONSANTOI MAN) deputy commissioner for foods at the F.D.A., said in a telephone interview.
A main goal of the new law is to change what has been a reactive legal system to one that focuses on preventing illnesses, food safety advocates say. There are approximately 3,000 deaths and 128,000 hospitalizations from food contamination every year, said Mr. Olson of the Pew Charitable Trusts, who cited federal government data.