How Many More Food Recalls Will It Take to End Delay on New Food Safety Rules?

On Aug. 22, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that cantaloupes from Chamberlain Farms in Indiana are being recalled because of Salmonella contamination, which has infected 178 people in 21 states, causing 62 hospitalizations and 2 deaths.

The recall may not be the last action needed to stop this outbreak: the FDA says that there could be additional sources of the bacteria-infested fruit and that its investigation is ongoing. It's also worth noting that this recall comes on the heels of other major food contamination incidents, including Listeria contamination of cantaloupes and Salmonella contamination of seafood.

Given all those facts, it'd be hard to disagree with USA Today’s editorial decrying the continuing delay of safe produce rules that were authorized by the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Here's the timeline: Responding to repeated outbreaks in eggs, spinach, ground beef and other foods, Congress passed an aggressive food-safety bill in late 2010. President Obama signed it in January 2011. The Food and Drug Administration spent most of last year drafting rules, including one aimed at preventing produce from being contaminated by bacteria from such sources as animals, workers and water.

The draft rules went to the White House's Office of Management and Budget for review in December. They're still sitting there, some eight months later. . .

According to an Executive Order, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – or, more specifically, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) – must finish its review and release rules within 90 days. They are allowed to extend their review by 30 days if necessary. In other words, OIRA has now been sitting on these rules for twice as long as they are supposed to.

OMB insists the delay in releasing food-safety rules has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with a complex, multi-agency consulting process and a sincere effort to get the rules right. Perhaps. But must it really take 20 months (and counting) to write a rule to try to keep produce safer than it is now?
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