President Obama signed into law two years ago an act that was designed to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more power to hold food suppliers responsible for food-bourne illnesses. Yet most of the Food Safety Modernization Act has not been implemented. The law’s regulatory framework is languishing in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where it is under review.
Meanwhile, the number of Americans who have gotten sick from contamination in food increased in 2012 over the previous year, reports CNN. A report released this month from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) — an organization the aims to protect consumers’ health and financial security — found that there were 718 illnesses that were directly linked to food recalls in 2011. From January to September 2012, there were 1,035 such illnesses, a 44% increase.
When comparing 2010 infection incidences with national health objective targets [...] the only incidence rate that meets the target goal was the incidence of infection with E. coli O157. The incidence of salmonella was three times the 2010 national health objective target, which is especially alarming, as salmonella causes the majority of hospitalizations and deaths from foodborne disease.
Parts of the act have already been enacted. But the OMB is reviewing some specific rules for the regulations.
“We have taken key steps, including putting out a food safety rule cracking down on salmonella in eggs and expanding E. coli testing for beef,” says OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack. “We are working as expeditiously as possible to implement the food safety legislation we fought so hard for. When it comes to rules with this degree of importance and complexity, it is critical that we get it right.”
Meanwhile, Congress plans to cut funding for FDA. US PIRG disagrees with the proposed cuts.
“In February, the president’s budget requested $4.5 billion for the Food and Drug Administration,” the group says in its report. “But budget proposals in both the Senate and the House fall below this target, coming in $600 (million) to $700 million below full funding, which the Office of Management and Budget has called ‘harmful’ to food safety regulations.”
As more food is imported, FDA cannot keep up with the demand, the group says. About 15% of food in the United States comes from other countries; almost two-thirds of fruits and vegetables sold in the country come from overseas. In 2008, FDA inspected only 153 of the estimated 189,000 registered foreign food facilities.
The group argues that FDA needs to be given the proper funding so that it can develop concrete and specific standards for inspections at all facilities. It needs the full funding asked for by the administration so that it can perform more unannounced inspections, coordinate food safety efforts with other agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and do more research that could find the cause of food-borne illnesses.
FDA commented on the report as well. “The rule-making process can take time, and we are working diligently to get this right,” a spokesperson says. “ We are confident the end result will be a solid framework to strengthen and modernize our nation’s food safety system.”
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.