Lawsuit Filed Over Food Safety Lapses

A lawsuit was just filed against the federal government over food safety lapses. U.S. health and environmental organizations filed the lawsuit on Wednesday.

According to Reuters, the lawsuit was filed over what both groups described as a failure to implement and enforce a new food safety law that, if passed, could potentially prevent thousands of food borne illness deaths annually. The two non-profit groups—the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health—said government officials have continually missed mandated deadlines for issuing final regulations required under the Food Safety Modernization Act.

The groups are now asking a federal court to mandate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Office of Management and Budget officials to begin enforcing the Law, explained Reuters. “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.

This year alone, the U.S. has seen food borne illness outbreaks linked to the Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria pathogens. About 3,000 deaths are attributed to food borne illnesses annually, said Reuters, noting that about 48 million people—one in six Americans—suffers from food borne illness each year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“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,” he added, according to Reuters. An FDA spokesman and an official at the Office of Management and Budget could not immediately be reached for comment by Reuters.

As we’ve written, a number of issues are leaving Americans vulnerable to food borne infection outbreaks, with reporting of these illnesses being, at best, inconsistent, and leaving most consumers vulnerable before health officials can identify outbreaks and recall contaminated foods.

Meanwhile, said Reuters, the Food Safety Modernization Act was the first U.S. food safety revamp in over 70 years and was signed into law in January 2011. The Act lacked implementation of the law’s provisions and most of this country’s food system is still operating under passé regulations. The new rules have been sitting in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget since late 2011 when the FDA submitted proposed versions, said Reuters.

The rules would establish standards for potential produce contamination sources and would make importers responsible for the safety of food they import into the U.S., said Reuters. Food companies would also have to identify potential contamination causes and describe preventative measures.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that the FDA failed to meet hundreds of deadlines established with the law. Reuters noted that the agency was supposed to have established analysis and document hazard standards, implemented preventative measures, set minimum standards for safe production and harvesting of certain types of fruits and vegetables, and publish notice of its proposed rulemaking. These measures were to be met, in some cases, as far back as January 4, 2012 and as recently July 4, 2012. According to the lawsuit, the deadlines were not met. “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,” he added, said Reuters.

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