Meetings with Food Lobbyists Result in Weakened Rules, Delays

Administration officials met ten times with food-industry lobbyists while the government was supposed to be finalizing regulations designed to protect the food supply from bioterrorism, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Documents reviewed by CSPI show that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) hosted a steady stream of meetings with 31 food industry representatives who were seeking to water down four proposed anti-bioterror rules. OMB did not appear to have met with any independent food-safety experts or consumer groups during this time.

“The Administration has been loudly congratulating itself for fighting the war on terrorism,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “But behind closed doors it has worked hand in glove with the food industry to undermine the strong anti-bioterrorism law passed by Congress. Today, due to these delays, FDA can’t reliably track food involved in a food emergency or a more common outbreak, although Congress mandated that tracking authority should be implemented by last December.”

According to participant lists on OMB’s web site, agency officials met with officials from Kraft, ConAgra, Procter & Gamble, the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the National Food Processors Association, and the National Coalition of Food Importing Associations, as well as several food packaging and transportation groups. In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, CSPI recently obtained additional information, including handouts and meeting agendas supplied by the industry representatives.

In June 2002, Congress passed the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 to improve the ability of the United States to prevent, prepare for, and respond to bioterrroism and other public health emergencies. The act gave the FDA new authority to detain potentially contaminated foods and to register foreign and domestic food facilities. The act requires record keeping in the food industry and prior notice of food imports.

The prior-notice regulation for shipments of imported food allows the FDA to dispatch its inspectors to check the riskiest shipments. The initial proposal required 12 hours notice. Four meetings with industry were held at OMB on this regulation in July and September 2003. The regulation that emerged in October 2003 had significantly shorter notice requirements—just two hours notice for trucks, four hours for trains or planes, and eight hours for ships transporting food.

Another proposed rule that requires companies to keep records on food shipments and ingredients allows the FDA to quickly track food back to its source in an emergency. The law specified that the regulation be finalized within 18 months. That deadline expired in December 2003, and FDA announced that it would finalize the rule by the end of March of 2004.

Fourteen food industry representatives attended OMB meetings on this regulation, including three meetings in February and March 2004. The industry agenda for a February 2004 meeting included such topics as “Lot code tracking is unnecessary and costly,” and “Four hour record keeping retrieval—Unreasonable and unnecessary.” That regulation has never been finalized by FDA.

Two other regulations were finalized as required by the law. In October 2003, FDA issued a final rule requiring domestic food processors and importers to register with the agency. In June 2004, it finalized a rule covering administrative detention procedures for food.

“At OMB meetings on the bioterrorism regulations, the food industry was literally setting the agenda,” DeWaal said. “The Administration’s deference to a politically powerful industry means that all Americans would be more vulnerable if a terrorist attack using the food supply occurred.”– 30 –