The Obama administration continues to drag its feet on a landmark consumer-protection law that could have made this week's Thanksgiving feast, leftovers and snacks considerably safer to eat.
It's been nearly two years since the Food Safety Modernization Act cleared Congress with bipartisan support and industry backing. But these sweeping new safeguards for produce, imported food and food processing plants remain roadblocked by a little-known administrative agency: the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
That agency reviews proposed regulations and essentially has brought the process of turning the law's language into practical rules and regulations to a halt. The always-strapped-for-resources U.S. Food and Drug Administration did its job of drafting the proposed regulations for review. But OIRA has sat on the proposed guidelines for the law's key components for up to a year.
"This is a public health priority. This is a safety risk that is preventable,'' said Sandra Eskin, project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Food Safety Campaign. "The president signed the legislation. He supports the legislation. It's time for these regulatory proposals to see the light of day. There's no excuse for holding them up.''
After high-profile outbreaks involving peanut butter and cantaloupes, leading food-industry trade organizations also are saying it's in their best interest for the regulations to move forward.
On Tuesday, the Grocery Manufacturers Association issued this statement: Administrative "review is a critical component of the rule-making process, and it should be conducted in a complete and thorough manner. That said, ensuring the safety of our products -- and maintaining the confidence of consumers -- is the single most important goal of our industry. GMA member companies are eager to implement the provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act and look forward to the release of the proposed rules so that process may begin in earnest."
The White House has for months responded inadequately to concerns about the delay from food-safety advocates and by the industry, raising uncomfortable questions about priorities and whether politics interfered with the law's rollout. Did election-year fears about red tape slow it down?
OIRA's controversial former chief Cass Sunstein, who resigned in August, also developed a reputation for micromanaging draft regulations. In a commentary appearing in the Chicago Tribune last spring, Sunstein noted that "during the first three years of the Obama administration, the number of final rules reviewed by OIRA and issued by executive agencies was actually lower than during the first three years of the Bush administration.''
Responding to an editorial writer's inquiry this week, a spokeswoman said the administration is working as "expeditiously as possible" to review the guidelines and that it's important with such complex rules to "get it right." That's admirable, but it's been almost two years since the law was enacted. And there's still no date targeted for the rules' release.
While bureaucrats dally, the foodborne outbreaks continue. A 2008-09 salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter sickened more than 700 people, claiming the life of 72-year-old Shirley Mae Almer from Perham, Minn. This fall, another salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter has infected at least 41 people. Sixty-three percent of them are children under the age of 10.
Implementing the law is a public-health imperative. It's an outrage that it's taking so long to put its critical safeguards in place.