Advocates frustrated with Obama administration over food safety law

When Haylee Bernstein of Wilton was 3 years old, she and an older sister fell seriously ill and were rushed to the hospital.

Haylee barely survived.

She suffered kidney failure, bleeding in her brain requiring emergency surgery and was temporarily blinded.

The reason: The children had snacked on lettuce tainted with E.coli, a bacteria that can be deadly.

Nearly 16 years later, Haylee still suffers the ill effects of food poisoning. She has serious vision problems, takes seven medications twice a day and suffers from diabetes.

“My doctors consider me a living miracle,” said Haylee, now 18. “I know that I survived for a reason.”

Haylee believes that reason was to tell her story about the dangers in the nation’s food supply and she did, over and over again on Capitol Hill. She joined a legion of advocates who hoped to end the outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that strike 48 million Americans each year, killing thousands.

But to the dismay of Haylee and her family, more than a year after President Obama signed it into law, the Food Safety and Modernization Act has hardly been implemented.

“I’m furious,” said Haylee’s mother Rita Bernstein. “This should be a No. 1 priority. But I think until (food poisoning) affects a senator’s daughter, it won’t be a priority.”

It was once a priority for Obama, who prodded Congress to pass the food safety bill. If the regulations are finalized, farmers and processors of all types of food would be required to identify hazards in their operations and to develop measures to prevent contamination.

The act also gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to inspect the most vulnerable food operations and farms, and to force recalls of contaminated food, which have been voluntary.

Obama called the food safety act “a sea change for food safety in America, bringing a new focus on prevention.”

But the administration has missed key deadlines to implement the new law. It was required to publish regulations in January that sets out how farms and food processors have to develop new safety standards and practices.

‘Until the FDA develops rules to describe the details of those improvements, the law is a hollow victory for consumers who want safer food,” said Carolyn Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The FDA was also supposed to have published updated good agricultural practices for fresh produce, guidance on protecting against bioterrorism through the intentional adulteration of food and guidance to help schools and child care programs protect against food allergy risks.

The agency also missed a deadline to designate what falls into the “high-risk foods” category, which would require stricter record-keeping requirements.

DeWaal is concerned that the administration will not meet a number of other deadlines later this year — and push back a critical aspect of the bill, new FDA inspections of food plants.

She said she doesn’t know why the administration is dragging its feet.

“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “We will probably have another outbreak that could have been avoided had the administration moved.”

Last fall, listeria bacteria in cantaloupe killed 30 people. Clover sprouts, pine nuts and romaine lettuce have also caused major outbreaks lately. One involving ground turkey last year sickened dozens of people in several states, including Connecticut.

FDA spokesman Doug Karas said the agency is still writing the regulations, and they would be out “soon.”

He pointed to one deadline the FDA did meet. It completed 600 inspections of foreign food plants last year and hopes to inspect 1,200 this year.

Yet even if all safety regulations are finalized, the FDA may suffer another obstacle in its effort to protect the nation’s food — a lack of money.

At a congressional hearing on the agency’s budget earlier this month, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said it could not enforce all of the new food safety measures unless new user fees are imposed on food companies.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, weighed in with her support.

“The simple truth is that the FDA cannot meaningfully deliver on these mandates without sufficient funding,” DeLauro said.

The food industry, which has many allies on Capitol Hill, is pushing back on the idea of additional user fees. They argue that the food safety act already assesses fees on the industry to pay for the FDA’s new missions.

Meanwhile, Diane Wright Hirsch, an extension educator in food safety at the University of Connecticut, is waiting for the administration to implement the food safety act so she can better counsel the state’s farmers.

“A lot of it is still a big question mark,” she said.

Hirsch is disappointed that the food safety bill excluded small farms from its requirements — a change needed to gain support for the bill.

“Smaller does not mean safer,” she said.

Hirsch also cautioned that full implementation of the act won’t solve all of the problems in the food supply.

“Experience has shown regulations result in reductions of food-borne illnesses, but they don’t guarantee every food product is safe,” she said.