So Much for ‘Revolutionary’: New Food-Safety Rules End Up in Trash

It has been two years since Congress passed sweeping reforms—and so far, there’s nothing to show for it.

Maybe we shouldn't expect any extra inspections after all. (Photo: Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

Apr 4, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Call it “photo-op” politics. Here’s how it works: Pass a bill in Washington, then hold a press conference hailing it as revolutionary reform. Bask in the limelight as you’re lauded for your exemplary progressiveness. Then, when the news cameras have moved on, let the thing languish.

You probably didn’t need that explanation; it’s become all too familiar in politics today. And here’s the latest casualty: the 2010 Food Safety and Modernization Act, which was hailed (such bills are always “hailed”) as the biggest reform in how the federal government ensures the safety of our food supply in over 70 years.

Now it’s more than two years later and, well, guess what happened. The Obama Administration has basically eviscerated many of the key provisions of the law that it championed in the first place.

By way of Grist we find out that food makers will not now be required “to design, implement, and test risk-based food-safety plans.” Nor will food processing facilities, or the food they process, be tested for contamination—unless they volunteer to do so.

As Tom Laskawy writes: “Without requirements for testing and verification of safety plans, the FDA will remain powerless to stop things like the deadly 2011 listeria outbreak in cantaloupe caused by shockingly unsanitary storage conditions at a Colorado farm. Had that farm been forced by law to produce a safety plan and then to have that plan verified, much less to have its produce tested, the people who died would likely be alive today.”

Passed in the wake of a number of scary outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, the “landmark” food safety act (yes, “landmark” now gets scare quotes) received bipartisan support in Congress—yeah, something that might actually qualify as bipartisan, with more than, say, two Republicans joining Democrats to support it.

So what happened? The Food and Drug Administration dragged its feet drafting the new regulations that were required by the law. Then there was an election year. The general consensus seems to be that the Obama Administration didn’t want the proposed rules released in 2012 for fear of being further tarred as promulgating more “job killing” government regulations.

But it appears at the end of the day it was the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—one of those offices that few Americans have ever heard of but which holds immense power—that put the kibosh on the new regs.

The OMB has long had a reputation under Republican presidents as being the place new regulations go to die. Agencies submit their proposals to OMB, and the office analyzes how much those proposals are going to cost. And this being Washington, of course, politics comes into play.

Word on the street is that OMB is appeasing the food industry lobby. “It’s OMB once again protecting the corporate bottom lines at the expense of protection for public health,” David Plunkett, an attorney with Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Food Safety News.

It’s all enough to make someone feel a little queasy.