Last summer, cantaloupe grown at an Indiana farm triggered a 24-state outbreak of salmonella poisoning that sickened 261 people and caused three deaths. In recent days, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made public the results of an inspection of the farm. Salmonella was found on conveyor belts, there was trash and standing water in the packing house, and birds were roosting above - dropping feces on the processing line.
Until now, the basic approach of the U.S. government has been to react to such outbreaks. The Indiana case offers a powerful example of why this is flawed: With proper precautions, it could have been prevented. Two years ago Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed landmark legislation to overhaul the nation's food-safety laws, shifting toward preventing outbreaks. The Food Safety Modernization Act was approved with bipartisan support in both houses and industry backing. But it has been caught in a regulatory black hole.
Foodborne illness strikes one in six Americans each year; about 130,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 people die, according to the FDA, which regulates about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply. (The Agriculture Department oversees the rest.) In addition to the human suffering, the outbreaks add enormous burdens to our health-care system. Recalls and disruptions are costly to industry.
On Friday, the new law moved a step closer to reality with the FDA's announcement of proposed rules in two major areas: produce safety and food processing. Most Americans probably do not realize that, until now, there have not been mandatory standards for the produce they buy. The new rules will, if adopted, set standards for equipment, tools, buildings, water, soil and other sources of possible contamination. The proposed rules on processing will require the establishment of preventive controls: Facilities would have to have written plans and follow up on them.
Certainly there will be quibbles here and there, but we think this is an area appropriate for government intervention and activism. The publication of the proposed rules is a welcome step after a long delay. For a year, draft rules were bottled up in a review by the Office of Management and Budget. Another set of rules to govern imported food also is overdue. Administration officials have insisted the delays are due to complexity, not a desire to avoid controversy before the election.
Either way, delay is costly. Foodborne illness knows no state boundary nor political party. Combating it is in the national interest. The release of the proposed rules ought to signal that the law will soon be functioning to protect the food supply and prevent the next contaminated cantaloupe from making it to the grocery.