More delays for food safety overhaul

The agency said it was again extending the public comment period for sweeping draft regulations for farmers and food producers, giving them more time to assess them together with related rules issued last month for food imports.

The regulations, prescribed by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2010, reflect a sea change in the country’s strategy for combating food-borne illnesses, replacing a system focused on responding to contamination to with one designed to prevent it.

Consumer and industry groups generally embraced the proposed regulations when they were unveiled in January. But delays since have frustrated advocates of the law in Congress and public interest circles.

As originally drafted, the rules gave interested parties 120 days to weigh in on the regulations’ major components, and 30 days to comment on provisions involving the way information would be collected under the rules.

Early in the process, the FDA agreed to extend the deadline on comments about the information collection piece 90 days, so that all the comments would be due on the same day: March 16.

But in February, the agency, to give those affected more time “to develop a meaningful or thoughtful response” to the rules, doubled the comment period by adding another 120 days. Under that extension, comments would have been in September.

The decision roiled Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who helped write the law. DeLauro called lingering food safety threats “shameful” and demanded that the regulations be finalized.

Last month, the FDA unveiled a set of additional rules in accordance with the FSMA. Those rules, meant to improve safety of imported foods, involve third-party audits and a new supplier verification program.

Only after the release of those rules, could the impacted companies assess the overall impact to the industry, business groups said.

The FDA will give the industry more time to do just that, according to a notice to appear in Friday’s Federal Register.

Business groups and other parties with a stake in the rules will have an additional two months “to consider the interrelationships between the proposals” and weigh in, the FDA said.

Comments are now due on Nov. 15.