WASHINGTON -- Families who’ve lost loved ones to food-borne illnesses have watched with alarm in recent months as producers have recalled mangoes, cantaloupe, ricotta cheese, dog food and peanut butter after people were sickened by the tainted goods.
A landmark food safety law passed nearly two years ago was supposed to help curtail such outbreaks. But the Obama administration has yet to issue the final rules that will give the Food and Drug Administration more authority over food producers.
The rules are supposed hold producers accountable for the quality of their products and produce and will allow federal regulators to better track and contain outbreaks. Some food safety advocates believe such rules could have helped prevent the most recent salmonella outbreak in peanut butter, which has sickened 35 people since June, mostly children younger than 10. A peanut butter recall was expanded last week and fallout continues; on Wednesday an ice cream company in California, Clemmy’s, recalled its peanut butter chocolate chip ice cream because of salmonella fears.
"We have to get ahead of it,” said Paul Schwarz of Independence, Mo., whose 92-year-old father died earlier this year after eating cantaloupe tainted with listeria, a particularly nasty bacteria for older people to fight off. "It’s not a matter of party. To me, it’s a matter of life or death."
Three years ago, after a deadly salmonella outbreak in peanut butter, President Barack Obama pledged a top-to-bottom review of the FDA. His own daughters eat peanut butter, he told Americans during a television interview, and no one should doubt the safety of such a pantry staple.
Late in 2010, Congress followed up with the Food Safety Modernization Act, giving the FDA not only more regulatory authority over food producers, but the power to hold foreign food producers to the same standards as those in this country.
But two years later, rules that require food producers to evaluate the hazards in their operations and that give the FDA access to such records have yet to be released. The Food Safety Modernization Act rules remain under review by the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, though officials there won’t say why. Once released, the rules will need to go through a public review and comment process before taking effect.
As the rules have stalled at OMB, outbreaks have worsened. Last month, a peanut butter producer launched a recall after some people were sickened by peanut butter sold at Trader Joe’s grocery stores and made by Sunland Inc. On Friday, Sunland announced a voluntary expansion of its ongoing recall, which now includes 240 products made at the company’s New Mexico plant dating as far back as March 2010 and sold at a variety of retailers.
The food safety system has "once again let us down," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., one of the leading food safety advocates in the House of Representatives. "We must improve oversight of food production facilities and we must implement the Food Safety Modernization Act without delay.”
Three Democratic senators wrote a letter to the Office of Management and Budget in July, noting three months ago that the rules had been sitting at the agency for seven months. OMB has 90 days to review such rules, said the senators, including Tom Harkin of Iowa, one of the bill’s authors. Their letter notes that a salmonella outbreak in dry dog food sickened 49 people who handled the food over the summer; one of the pending rules targets preventative controls for animal feed facilities.