FDA to revise sweeping food safety overhaul

The Obama administration announced Thursday it would revise its plan to overhaul the nation’s food safety system, saying that thinking has "evolved" on how the landmark regulations would affect farmers.

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision to re-propose draft regulations, required by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), could spell more delays for the 2011 law’s implementation.

The FSMA reflects the biggest food safety update in 70 years, and the FDA has argued that the statutory deadline was unrealistic, given the sea change in policy required. The law involves replacing a decades-old system designed to respond to illness outbreaks with one set up to prevent them through new regulations at food production plants, warehouses and farms.

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s first ever deputy commissioner for foods, said significant revisions are needed to ensure the new system is practical to implement and provides enough flexibility to the produce industry.

“We believe that this decision to change these proposed rules — in response to the careful consideration of many people involved in supplying our food — is critical to fulfilling our commitment to getting them right,” Taylor said Thursday in a post to the FDA’s blog.

The proposed regulations governing produce safety and preventive controls for human food were unveiled in January, two years after the law’s enactment and several months after the new system was to be up and running.

Still, the FDA’s failure to meet a July 2012 deadline under the law drew a lawsuit from the Center for Food Safety.

A federal judge in June ordered the agency to complete all final regulations under FSMA by mid-2015.

Even before Thursday’s announcement, Taylor stopped short of saying the FDA would be able to meet the deadline.

“The deadlines are enormously challenging,” he told The Hill last week. “It’s a huge volume of rule-making.”

Now, the FDA is setting a summer 2014 goal for issuing the revised draft rules. Their release would start the clock on a new comment period that would apply only to the revised components of the regulations.

Provisions requiring a new approach include rules governing water quality and testing, standards for using raw manure and compost and certain regulations affecting mixed-use facilities.

The FDA will also revisit language involving the exemption of certain farms from the regulations.

“We have heard the concern that these provisions, as proposed, would not fully achieve our goal of implementing the law in a way that improves public health protections while minimizing undue burden on farmers and other food producers,” the agency said in announcing the decision.