* Seeks court order to force food safety regulations
* Lawsuit claims government agencies failed to enact rules
* Several missed deadlines cited in suit
By Carey Gillam
Aug 29 Two U.S. health and environment
organizations sued the federal government on Wednesday for what
the groups say is a failure to implement and enforce a new food
safety law that could help prevent thousands of deaths caused by
food-borne illnesses each year.
The groups said government officials had repeatedly missed
mandatory deadlines for issuing final regulations required by
the Food Safety Modernization Act. They are asking a federal
court to order officials at both the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) and the Office of Management and Budget to
force the agencies to start enforcing the law.
"President Obama says the passage of this bill is one of the
hallmarks of his first administration," said Andrew Kimbrell,
executive director with the Center for Food Safety, which is one
of the plaintiffs.
The other plaintiff is the Center for Environmental Health.
Both it and the Center for Food Safety are non-profit public
interest advocacy groups.
Over the past year, the United States has had numerous
outbreaks from food-borne illnesses tied to salmonella, E. coli
and listeria. In July, food sickness was linked to cantaloupe.
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, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
"The bill is useless unless the agencies actually
promulgate regulations that make it work," said Kimbrell. "This
is very serious. They are twiddling their bureaucratic thumbs
while Americans become sick and die."
A spokeswoman for the FDA had no immediate comment and an
official with the Office of Management and Budget could not
immediately be reached for comment.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was the first food safety
overhaul in over 70 years for the United States. It was signed
into law in January 2011. But lacking implementation of the
law's provisions, most of the U.S. food system continues to
operate under what public health advocates say are outdated
laws. The new 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.
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. They would also
force food companies to identify possible causes of
contamination and specify actions to prevent them.
According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for
the Northern District of California, FDA has failed to meet
hundreds of deadlines established with the law, seven of which
are the required promulgation of major food safety regulations.
FDA was supposed to establish standards for analyzing and
documenting hazards and implementing preventative measures by
July 4 of this year, but did not do so, the suit says.
As well, FDA was to set minimum standards for safe
production and harvesting of certain types of fruits and
vegetables and publish notice of its proposed rulemaking by Jan.
4, 2012, but did not do so, according to the lawsuit.
"These are the basics on standards, procedures,
traceability... upon which the entire system is based," said
Kimbrell. "They haven't done what is required to actually begin
the process of getting this new food safety law in place."
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Lisa