Food & Drink

Food Safety Modernization Act Still Awaiting Obama's Approval

By Lily Kuo

July 17 (Reuters) - Families, public health advocates and consumer groups called on the White House on Tuesday to implement delayed provisions in a food safety law they say would help prevent some of the nearly 3,000 deaths caused by food-borne illnesses each year.

Families of victims who have died from food-borne illnesses and consumer and health organizations wrote a letter to President Barack Obama calling on him push forward provisions of a food safety law signed last year that would regulate food imports, produce and packaged food against possible contamination.

The Food Safety Modernization Act was the first food safety overhaul in over 70 years, and without the implementation of these provisions most of the U.S. food system continues to operate under what public health advocates say are outdated laws.

These rules would help prevent food-borne outbreaks such as one last year when listeria-contaminated cantaloupe killed over 30 people, said Erik Olson, director for food programs at the Pew Health Group.

"With our current food system it only takes one part of that food system to contaminate a huge amount of food," Olson said. "We're concerned that the longer these rules take to get out we're just going to continue having these kinds of outbreaks."

The rules have remained at the White House's Office of Management and Budget since late 2011 when the Food and Drug Administration submitted proposed versions of the rules. The OMB is tasked with reviewing and releasing the rules to continue the rule-making process.

Over the past year the United States has had 10 cases of food-borne diseases where multiple states were affected and as many as 390 cases were reported in one outbreak, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aggregated by the Pew Health Group.

These outbreaks were from salmonella, E. coli and listeria in food like ground tuna, imported papaya and pine nuts.

The CDC estimates that about 3,000 deaths are caused by food-borne illnesses and about 48 million people, or one in six Americans, gets sick from food contamination every year. Because of underreporting, the number of sicknesses caused by contaminated food is greatly understated, Olson said.

The rules would establish standards for possible sources of contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables, and make importers responsible for the safety of food they import.

It would also force food companies to identify possible causes of contamination and specify actions to prevent them. (Reporting by Lily Kuo; Editing by Eric Beech)