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Food safety law is being delayed

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THE FOOD AND DRUG Administration is recalling cantaloupes grown in southern Indiana that may have been a source of a salmonella outbreak that has led to two deaths in Kentucky and sent 62 people to hospitals. Last year, cantaloupes grown in Colorado contaminated with listeria killed 33 people and sickened 147. When peanut products were contaminated with salmonella in early 2009, one father fretted about his young daughter eating a peanut butter sandwich. “No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch,” he said.

That father was President Obama. In his weekly radio address March 14, 2009, he also declared, “There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and don’t cause us harm.” In 2011, the president signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s food safety system since the 1930s, which passed Congress with broad bipartisan support and industry backing.

And therein lies a puzzle. The Food and Drug Administration drafted regulations to implement the law and sent them to the Office of Management and Budget for review in November and December. The rules include: new produce safety standards; safety guidelines for imported food; and requiring food companies to develop plans that will identify possible sources of contamination and rectify them. Broadly, the new law will shift the emphasis in food safety to prevention, rather than reacting after people get sick.

Under an executive order, regulatory reviews are limited to 90 days, with extensions possible. The average time for a regulatory review in this administration has been 54 days. The food safety rules have been bottled up for nearly nine months. Why? The budget office told us it is working hard and the rules are complex.

The cantaloupe outbreak is just one more reminder of why the government should delay no longer. Food-borne illness is a major public-health threat, one appropriate for government activism. One of the administration’s catchy slogans has been “we can’t wait,” and yet it seems it is doing exactly that with food safety.

Could it be the White House doesn’t want to give the Republicans another argument against an ostensibly over-regulating Democratic administration? We hope not. Food safety should not fall victim to a political calendar. Mr. Obama signed the food safety law 20 months ago. The more time is wasted now, the longer parents will have to worry about those peanut butter sandwiches.

Read more about this debate: Paul Polman and Daniel Servitje: Global challenge of food and nutrition security Brad Plumer: What ‘pink slime’ tells us about industrial food safety

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