Yet another groundbreaking consumer-protection law has disappeared into a mysterious policymaking black hole at the White House.
Twenty months after President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the landmark legislation appears to have suffered the same fate as another important measure: the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which passed in 2010 and requires doctors to publicly disclose their financial ties to industry.
Both historic laws have yet to become a reality because the Obama administration hasn't completed the work of turning the laws' language into practical regulations, then issuing that guidance to the public.
With both laws, the administration is months behind in meeting key deadlines for rolling out the regulations. Repeated pleas from industry and consumer advocates so far has yielded little information or action from the White House. An editorial writer's inquiries weren't returned Thursday.
The public deserves a prompt explanation for the laws' stay in policy purgatory, as well as a firm timetable for when the rules will be issued. Minnesota in particular has an economic stake in timely guidance.
The state is home to some of the nation's leading food-processing firms. It's also a manufacturing center for medical devices. Payments by the device industry to physicians are among the financial transactions that were supposed to be tracked beginning in January. Companies geared up to comply with the sunshine law, which had widespread industry support, but have been left hanging.
The recent salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupes should have made the Food Safety Modernization Act's launch a presidential priority. So far, the outbreak has sickened 178 people nationally. Four of them are Minnesotans.
The Food Safety Modernization Act generated widespread political and industry support because it was decades overdue. The last overhaul of the nation's food-protection laws took place in 1938, when much food was raised locally.
The new law, which Obama signed in January 2011, reflected the realities of today's food-supply chain: vast quantities of imported food and, within the United States, centralized processing plants that ship raw materials such as peanut butter to many food manufacturers.
The law provides prudent steps to improve food safety: better oversight of food imports and improved "traceback" capability so that food items containing a contaminated product can be removed from the shelf before they're eaten. The law also enacts new safety standards for produce.
In April, an industry food safety consortium sent a letter urging the Obama administration to issue the rules promptly. Two of the letter's signers were from Minnesota-based Cargill and Hormel Foods. The lack of action has turned the law "into a paper tiger awaiting teeth,'' said Erik Olson, director of food programs at Pew Charitable Trusts.
There's no reason either law should be bogged down. The delay on the food-safety bill is especially disturbing and raises unflattering questions about presidential priorities and election-year paralysis -- when both political parties decide inaction is the safest campaign course.
Politics shouldn't interfere with governing. The rules for both laws should be issued without further delay.
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