Last year President Obama signed a law hailed as the most sweeping overhaul of food safety in 70 years. Fast forward 17 months, and major portions have yet to be implemented.
The Food Safety Modernization Act moves the Food and Drug Administration away from its traditional role of responding to adulterated food to a more modern one of requiring companies to stop contamination before it happens. It allows the agency to issue mandatory recalls and hire more food-safety inspectors. The act passed with bipartisan support and broad backing from the food industry and consumer and public health groups.
The law will touch the vast majority of foods Americans eat. FDA oversees most of the nation's food supply, except for meat, poultry and processed eggs, which are under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the new law hasn't gotten out of the starting gate. Regulations implementing the law are awaiting approval by the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for evaluating their effectiveness and making sure they are consistent with administration policies.
Three of the most important rules awaiting approval are:
•Safety standards for irrigation water, manure, worker hygiene and wildlife that can contaminate fresh fruits and vegetables.
•Foreign supplier verification programs that make importing companies responsible for the safety of the foods they bring into the United States.
•Requirements that food companies have a plan in place to identify possible sources of contamination and specify what they will do to deal with them.
By executive order, OMB is authorized to review new rules for three months and can extend the review period for an additional month. These rules have been at OMB for more than seven months.
OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack says public safety regulations can require extensive review. "The administration is working as expeditiously as possible to implement this legislation we fought so hard for. When it comes to rules with this degree of importance and complexity, it is critical that we get it right," she says.
Food-safety advocates and industry groups are frustrated.
"There is no good reason for this delay," says Erik Olson, director of food programs with the Pew Health Group, a part of the Pew Charitable Trusts. "What's important is that these new protections of our food supply be put into place as soon as possible to protect all Americans from getting sick from contaminated food."
"You really have to wonder who is advising the president to delay these regulations," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director with the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Polls show most people support food-safety legislation, she says. "It crosses party lines," she says. "People really understand that this is an essential function of government."
There's continued strong support from the food industry. Kraft, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Walmart, Kroger, Cargill and Tyson are all on record as supporting the law.
Both the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Produce Marketing Association sent letters to Obama this spring encouraging the administration to publish the draft rules.
Produce Marketing Association members handle more than 90% of fresh produce sold to U.S. consumers. In his letter, President Bryan Silbermann said not publishing the rules is creating "uncertainty and paralysis. It is much more difficult for companies to invest in additional food safety safeguards without knowing what the FDA rules will be."
Voters are willing to pay for food safety, according to poll by the Make Our Food Safe coalition, made up of 10 public health and consumer-advocacy organizations. Among likely voters, 66% support additional funding for FDA to carry out new responsibilities related to food safety. Almost 75% were willing to pay up to 3% more for food to cover the new safety measures.