Off-the-Shelf Food Safety

Reporting and writing stories just ahead of a presidential election is a tricky business. Just about any government policy and many private sector actions are put on hold, and the outcome of anything pending becomes murky.

If that’s a bit frustrating to a reporter, imagine how worked up a lobbying group can get during the inactivity of an election year. Two consumer groups were so outraged about what they perceived as campaign-based foot dragging on food safety that they filed a lawsuit in August asking a federal court to force the Food and Drug Administration to implement the Food Safety and Modernization Act passed in 2010.

A representative for the Center for Food Safety speculated the OMB didn’t want to give Republicans an election weapon to point to the food safety rules as job-killing regulations.

What’s a little ironic is that the law was never controversial within the industry, and a number of groups that will be covered by the law worked hard to get it passed.

Now that the election is over, consumer groups are expected to renew their pressure on the Obama administration to implement key provisions of the law. Draft regulations could start rolling out at any time, but are expected after the first of the year.

The FDA may be reaching even further back to implement new regulations in the coming year. In 2005, Congress told the FDA it is the agency in charge of regulating the safety of food during transportation.

After years of ignoring passage of the law, the FDA in May 2010 issued a notice of proposed rule-making on the Sanitary Food Transportation Act of 2005, which was nothing more than asking the transport industry to answer a score of questions.

It’s been more than two years since the FDA got answers from rail, truck, air and ocean carriers, but all has been radio silence on the regulatory front.

That may change soon. Patrick Brecht, a scientist who has worked in the transportation industry, said he expects the FDA to tackle the 2005 law as it implements 2010’s food safety bill.

Potentially troublesome: Brecht foresees an FDA proposal to regulate how carriers use equipment with cross-contamination as a buzzword. If carriers are further limited on what they can haul in a trailer or container, it could make backhauls and good equipment utilization much more difficult to achieve. 

It’s impossible to predict how quickly the FDA will go to work on new food safety regulations. But if it seeks to regulate transport equipment based on complex cross-contamination rules, it’s easy to predict lots of loud protests.

Contact Stephanie Nall at stephnalljoc@gmail.com.

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