WASHINGTON -- With thousands of Americans falling ill and public confidence shaken after a series of high-profile foodborne outbreaks several years ago involving consumer staples such as lettuce, peppers, peanuts and eggs, Congress and the White House moved aggressively to bring food safety into the 21st century.
But two years after President Obama signed a sweeping food safety bill into law, the rules at the heart of the largest food safety overhaul in more than 70 years have yet to be put in place, blocked by their sheer length, growing complexity and a White House that critics contend has delayed their implementation for political gain.
At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration, the government agency charged with implementing the new law, has been the victim of a push in Washington to rein in spending and some Republicans in Congress who have questioned the necessity and cost of the regulations.
Foodborne illnesses strike an estimated 48 million people in the United States each year, or about one in six Americans, killing 3,000, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study released in 2010 by consumer and public health groups said foodborne diseases cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year, far more than prior estimates. Despite the outbreaks, the United States is widely regarded as having one of the safest food supplies in the world.
The Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in January 2011 marked the biggest change of U.S. food safety laws since 1938 when Congress gave the FDA authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs and cosmetics.
For years, the FDA, tasked with regulating 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, was widely seen by lawmakers, consumer groups and the agency itself as understaffed and underfunded. That leaves the agency able to inspect only of a fraction of the plants under its watch.
While some businesses are waiting until the food safety rules are published, many companies are already incorporating their own food safety handling and transportation measures into their operations. The threat of potential litigation, long-term damage to their brand and a surge in the use of social media tools by the public to communicate has put more pressure on businesses to meet or exceed existing food safety requirements, said Acheson.
Hy-Vee, the 234-store, West Des Moines-based grocery chain has hired an outside auditor to do inspections of its stores. It also has worked with its distribution centers to make sure they handle and transport food using the same standards, such as ensuring sanitary conditions and uniform temperatures are maintained.
"There is cost involved but it's a cost of doing business and certainly it's nothing compared to not doing it," said Ruth Comer, assistant vice president of media relations with Hy-Vee. "If something isn't done and there is a food borne illness outbreak or another situation that one incident could be far more costly than any protective measures."