By Ben Goad and Julian Hattem - 12/15/13 07:30 AM EST
The coming year figures to be pivotal for food safety issues, as the Obama administration works to complete a host of regulations to shore up a system seen as exposing the American public to too many health risks.
In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration will push against a court-imposed deadline to finish a slate of rules reflecting the largest food safety overhaul in 70 years while also furthering plans to rid the food supply of trans fats, phase out the use of antibiotics in meat and launch new initiatives targeting sodium and caffeine.
Meanwhile, the high-stakes fight over genetically modified foods is expected to move from state legislatures around the country to Washington, where interests on both sides of the issue will push competing bills in Congress.
The centerpiece of the administration’s effort is a series of seven rules now being developed in accordance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law almost three years ago.
The sweeping statute directs the FDA to replace decades-old policies designed to respond to illness outbreaks with a system set up to prevent them through new regulations at food production plants, warehouses and farms.
Leading the effort is Michael Taylor, the FDA’s first ever deputy commissioner for foods. Taylor said the transition amounts to an unprecedented sea change in national food policy.
“There’s been nothing that comes close to this,” Taylor told The Hill Friday.
A set of initial FSMA rules, proposed in January, were followed this summer by draft regulations seeking to prevent contaminated foods from entering the country through third-party audits and a new supplier verification program.
A federal appeals court ordered the FDA to issue by Thursday an additional FSMA rule aimed at combating terror attacks to the country’s food supply. Other proposed rules on food shipping and an electronic portal for reporting hazardous foods are slated for release early in 2014.
The agency will spend the year slogging through thousands of public comments submitted in response to the draft rules, potentially reproposing drafts of some of the regulations before the final language is unveiled, Taylor said.
The FDA’s failure to meet a July 2012 deadline under the law drew a lawsuit from the Center for Food Safety.
“The American public is at risk every day that we don’t have this food safety overhaul in place,” O’Neil said.
In June, a federal court judge ordered the agency to complete all final regulations under FSMA by mid-2015, meaning the agency will be saddled with a huge major regulatory undertaking next year. Taylor stopped short of committing to meeting the deadline.
“The deadlines are enormously challenging,” he said. “It’s a huge volume of rule-making.”
The FDA is also taking steps beyond laws passed by Congress.
Earlier this month, the FDA ruled that it would take the main source of trans fats off of its list of ingredients that are “generally recognized as safe,” the first step to ban the additive from most foods.
To the food industry, the move might presage a larger change in perspective at the agency.
“I think that’s what everybody is curious to see [is] if this is some sort of signal from FDA,” said Joan McGlockton, the vice president of industry affairs at the National Restaurant Association.
In coming months, the FDA is also expected to issue voluntary guidelines for food companies to cut down on sodium and target a glut of energy drinks and highly caffeinated food products that Taylor said go “well beyond accepted boundaries.”
Taylor said the FDA has no intention of taking away the public’s morning coffee fix.
“Our concern is proliferation of nontraditional uses,” he said.
Still, McGlockton questioned whether the agency’s mission is evolving.
“Is FDA moving toward a more aggressive stance at regulating nutrients because of their health properties as opposed to because of safety, which is generally where FDA has been?” she asked.
Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are pressing the FDA to go further.
Last week, the agency released a plan to limit the drugs fed to livestock in an attempt to combat food-borne illnesses that have grown resistant to antibiotics.
But the FDA’s plan relies on voluntary cooperation from pharmaceutical companies and allows for a three-year transition period, which some say is too lenient.
“I don’t think they’re strong enough, and I don’t think we can give them three more years,” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) told The Hill. “It’s a giant step backward.”
Democratic lawmakers and consumer advocates have also pressed the FDA to impose label requirements on food products containing genetically modified ingredients. Proponents argue that genetically enhanced ingredients might pose public health risks, and consumers have a right to know what is in the food they eat.
In lieu of action on that front, they plan to renew their push for legislation in 2014.
The issue has already been the subject of fights in several states, where ballot measures have sparked a series of expensive political battles.
While no state has enacted across-the-board mandatory labeling, more ballot measures are expected in 2014. Faced with the prospect of having to pour millions more into opposition campaigns, food industry groups are expected to float federal legislation next year that would institute a national — but voluntary — labeling standard.
Helping to lead the charge is the grocery store industry.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has opposed the “patchwork” state efforts, which spokesman Brian Kennedy told The Hill in an emailed statement “would mislead consumers, raise the price of groceries for American families and do nothing to advance food safety.”
“Americans should be protected nationwide with consistent regulation of food safety and food labels — determined by our nation’s most qualified food safety expert — FDA,” he added.
Like the GMO labeling efforts, proponents of strong food safety rules say that the most forceful pushes start in state legislatures and then eventually make their way to Washington.
“I think what I’m going to do is ask some of my California colleagues to get these bills introduced there and get them passed,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of CYA that goes on back here that I think really frustrates the American consumer.”