“We still have a food supply that’s 99.99 percent safe,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) told The Washington Post shortly after Congress approved the food safety bill in late 2010. “No one wants anybody to get sick, and we should always strive to make sure food is safe. But the case for a $1.4 billion expenditure isn’t there.”
The next summer, House Republicans made much the same argument in voting to cut millions of dollars from the FDA’s budget, arguing that the greatest priority was reducing the budget deficit.
“We need additional resources to fully fund” the law, Taylor said when asked how the agency would pay for the new rules. “We’re hopeful we can work with Congress to get those resources.”
President Obama set the stage for a massive food-safety overhaul early in his presidency when he used a weekly address in March 2009 to highlight outbreaks involving spinach, peppers and peanut products that had sickened Americans in recent years. “Food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your president but as a parent,” he said.
Nearly two years later, Congress passed the far-reaching Food Safety Modernization Act with bipartisan support and backing from an array of consumer groups and food industry representatives.
The law focuses on the 80 percent of the food supply regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, including produce, dairy and seafood. Beef, poultry and some egg products are overseen by the Department of Agriculture.
The law gives the FDA broad new powers, including the ability to force companies to recall products and the authority to examine internal records at farms and food-production plants. It calls on the FDA to increase inspections, particularly at “high-risk” facilities prone to contamination, and to hire about 2,000 new inspectors.
Supporters had grown increasingly frustrated by repeated delays in the rule-writing process. Food safety experts, consumer groups, industry representatives, editorial boards and lawmakers on Capitol Hill took turns urging the Office of Management and Budget to release the rules.
Those calls grew louder after a 2011 outbreak of listeria traced to cantaloupe that left 33 people dead and led inspectors to unsanitary equipment at a processing plant in Colorado. In November, a salmonella outbreak that sickened 42 people in numerous states prompted the FDA to assert its new powers to temporarily halt production at the country’s largest organic peanut butter producer after finding numerous safety and sanitation problems.
The new proposals spent more than a year awaiting final approval from the OMB. That led some stakeholders to speculate that the administration might have been holding up the proposals until after the election.
“There’s no one explanation,” Taylor said when asked about the long delay. “They are complicated and interconnected; they are legitimately complex.”
More proposed rules are expected to be issued soon, including ones that would require that imported foods comply with U.S. safety standards. The FDA also plans to propose rules involving the production of animal foods.
It could be years before the proposals become final regulations. The FDA will take comments on the proposals for four months and then probably make changes. And some farms will have two years or more to comply with the rules.