We Overhauled Our Food Safety System. So Why Has Nothing Happened Yet?

Are election year politics to blame for the stalled Food Safety Modernization Act?

food safety modernization act

The Food Modernization Act was supposed to protect consumers, but delays have kept provisions from going into effect. (Photo: Hans Neleman/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

When President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law in January 2011, consumer advocates concerned with food safety pumped their fists and declared it a huge victory—with good reason. Food safety is a deadly serious problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, and 3,000 die. Many believed the sweeping changes were long overdue—food safety laws implemented by the FDA haven’t had a major overhaul since the 1930s.

The new changes were designed to address food safety in imported and processed food, and to address produce contamination, which was particularly important after high-profile deadly outbreaks of tainted produce, like last fall’s Jensen Farms listeria-tainted cantaloupe incident, or the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach.

But according to a New York Times story, the Act is languishing in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and some are pointing the finger at election-year politics.

“Advocates pressing for the food safety law to take effect say politics are a possible motivation for the delay. It is election season, they point out, and Democrats may want to avoid the impression that government regulation is growing, a popular cause for attacks by Republicans,” writes Sabrina Tavernise for the Times.

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But a spokesperson for the OMB says that’s not the case, and that they’re in the midst of the review process, which can take months. Additionally, the FDA, which will still need to put the rules out for public comment, has said they are suspending enforcement of the new law until it has been finalized.

The delays have frustrated groups calling for action like the Pew Charitable Trusts, STOP Foodborne Illness, Food & Water Watch.

“The FDA sent the regulations over in late November and December of last year. The OMB has more than enough time to look at these proposed regulations. The delay is just inexplicable,” Caroline DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells Take Part. “We don’t understand it, and we really are wondering who is advising the president.”

DeWaal says they’re especially interested in three regulations—one that requires a mandatory food safety plan in every facility; another that impacts produce safety standards, especially for high-risk fruits and vegetables; and a third that calls for increased controls for imported food.

Sandra Eskin, who runs the food safety campaign for Pew Charitable Trusts, says the law is stalled as the OMB and FDA go back and forth.

“At some point, you need to let others see it and comment,” she tells TakePart. “The thing is, we face lots of risks to our health every day. Some we have control over. Some we don’t. Foodborne illness can be prevented. Not every case, but many cases, and that’s why this is important.”

Are you worried about the safety of your food? Have you known anyone that’s contracted a foodborne illness?

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