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Food safety rules kept on back burner

| Tuesday, July 3, 2012

In a week that marks the height of outdoor-cooking season, food-safety experts are primed to make an example of Independence Day.

As loudly as ever, they emphasize basic suggestions — don't return cooked meat to unwashed plates, use a meat thermometer and wash hands often — 18 months after Congress passed the landmark federal Food Safety Modernization Act.

Detailed rules the law requires to better safeguard food supplies and production have yet to emerge in full from President Obama's administration.

That worries the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer-advocacy group in Washington.

“We're already six months behind schedule” in the planned implementation timeline, said Sarah Klein, an attorney with the center's food-safety program. “We're looking at this and saying, ‘This is six additional months of protection that consumers don't have.' ”

Passed in December 2010, the law is meant to build collaboration among government agencies and to update rules on produce safety and imported food. The intent is to stop contamination, in farm fields or livestock barns, before it reaches kitchens.

“It's not a matter of trying to treat people better once they become sick, but stopping the problem from occurring in the first place,” said Felicia Wu, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.

For the Allegheny County Health Department, “the act is saying we're going to be more involved with the federal government, and the federal government is going to look to the states to do a lot of their work,” said county food-safety chief Steve Steingart.

Since the law passed, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have logged more than 20 major outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. Those outbreaks led to 35 deaths, including 30 tied to listeria-contaminated cantaloupes last summer.

Asked about the delay in releasing the rules, Food and Drug Administration spokesman Curtis Allen said the legislation calls for four “large, complex and ground-breaking rules” at once.

“We've laid out a basic framework, set priorities and made decisions so we could move forward in a coherent and deliberate manner,” Allen said. “The rules are working their way through the rule-making process and getting a high level of attention.” He said the rules are pending with the White House Office of Management and Budget “and we don't have a sense of when” they may be released publicly. The office, reached on Monday, could not say when, either.

But Obama's “administration is working as expeditiously as possible to implement legislation we fought so hard for,” spokesman Kenneth Baer said in an email. “When it comes to rules with this degree of importance and complexity, it is critical that we get it right.”

H. Scott Hurd, a former deputy undersecretary for food safety at the Department of Agriculture, said he doubts the delay is deliberate. He said the law calls for nuanced regulations, with varying rules for produce.

“It's easy to make the law,” Hurd said. “But when you have to break it down to the nitty-gritty … it's just an enormous task to make it happen.”

Hurd, an associate professor at Iowa State University, said the regulations won't stop food-borne illnesses.

“It'll move us down the road a little bit further (for better food safety), and it certainly has given our (international) trading partners some warning. … It's a very clear message to our trading partners that we're concerned, that we're going to look harder,” Hurd said.

CDC records indicate outbreaks of food-borne illness are not increasing. About 1,000 have been reported each year since 1998, when the CDC began encouraging agencies to tally food-related illnesses more thoroughly.

Still, the nature of the outbreaks has shifted somewhat, said Robert Tauxe, a deputy director at the CDC.

“It used to be that they were all very localized events — related to a wedding reception, a catered event, a church social or a school,” Tauxe said.

Those problems persist, he said, but the CDC is much better at identifying broad, multi-state outbreaks.

“So maybe the fact that we're still getting about 1,000 outbreaks a year (total), even though surveillance has improved, is a sign that things are getting better,” Tauxe said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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