The Land of the Free and the Home of Overdue Food Safety Rules

The 390 Americans who recently got sick from Salmonella in seafood probably missed out on yesterday's holiday celebrations. But they weren't the only ones who weren't celebrating: food safety advocates were also bemoaning yet another missed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) deadline.

Yesterday was the statutory deadline for the Food and Drug Administration to enact final "prevention-based requirements for food companies" to develop plans to identify and address possible sources of contamination. That sounds straightforward enough – yet the proposed rules have been waiting for approval from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) since late 2011.

This isn't the first time OIRA has missed a deadline to review FSMA rules. Rules updating produce safety standards and improving the safety of food imports have also been waiting for OIRA's approval since late 2011 – even though the FSMA required that those rules be published by Jan. 4, 2012.

The FSMA is based on an eminently reasonable premise: we should reorient our food safety system toward preventing people from getting sick, rather than reacting to illnesses after they occur. It was supported by major food companies, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and even the usually anti-regulatory U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as public health and consumer advocates. Representatives of food producers and major food retailers (ranging from Kraft Foods to Wal-Mart) have called on the Obama administration to publish the rules because the policies will be good for Americans and good for American businesses.

Each year, roughly 3,000 Americans die, 127,000 are hospitalized, and 48 million get sick because of foodborne illnesses. These illnesses cost the U.S. economy more than $75 billion annually in medical care, lost productivity, and significant costs for farmers, food producers, food sellers, and restaurants – including lost sales, lost production, decreased consumer demand, and more. (And don't forget that farm and factory workers typically lose their jobs if they happen to work at a facility that becomes the source of the outbreak.)

The FSMA, signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011, was heralded as "the most important food safety advance in 70 years." But that's little comfort to the 390 people who've contracted Salmonella in the most recent outbreak, or the one-in-six Americans who will come down with a foodborne illness this year. The American people need OIRA to free the new food safety rules.

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