FDA: When It Comes to Food Safety, We Can’t Hurry

The FDA pushes back against a lawsuit claiming it is dragging its feet on the Food Safety Modernization Act.
(Photo: Adam Gault/Getty Images)
Dec 4, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

No one wants to worry about getting sick from simply eating lunch or dinner. President Obama took steps to ensure the safety of our food by signing the historic Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) nearly two years ago. So why is it taking so long for the mandated changes to be put into place?

Industry watchers say the agency has had more than enough time to enact the law. In August, the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health filed a lawsuit, saying the U.S. Food & Drug Administration missed mandatory deadlines and has failed to implement and enforce the Act.

But the FDA is pushing back, claiming the enormity and scope of enacting FSMA, “cannot be overstated” and has asked that a lawsuit filed by two advocacy groups be dismissed.

“Because of the interrelationship among the rules, each rule cannot be developed in a vacuum, but must be coordinated with other regulations,” said the FDA in a motion filed on Friday (.pdf). The agency also maintains its enforcement actions, and those of the Office of Budget and Management, are not subject to judicial review.

At its core, FSMA will address food safety in imported and processed food, and will tackle issues of produce contamination as well. Food safety laws implemented by the FDA haven’t had a major overhaul since the 1930s—a stunning fact, given that statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, resulting in 3,000 deaths.

Charles Margulis, a spokesperson for the Center for Environmental Health, tells TakePart that he hadn’t yet seen the FDA petition to dismiss the lawsuit.

“This year has been one of the worst for food safety. The law is needed and the FDA needs to be moved more quickly. We hope the courts take the Act seriously because the agency isn’t,” he said.

Indeed, there have been a number of high-profile food recalls recently, including the widespread Sunland, Inc. peanut-butter recall, and this summer’s cantaloupe recall, which killed two and sickened 178 in 21 states.

George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, tells Reuters that the FDA is breaking the law.

“They are not disputing that they missed the deadlines Congress set. They are just arguing those deadlines essentially don’t matter.”