Obama’s Food Safety Law That Republicans Fought Could Have Prevented Tainted Melon Outbreak

Eighteen people have now died from cantaloupes contaminated with listeria, in the deadliest food outbreak in a decade. But legislation President Obama signed into law earlier this year might have prevented their deaths if it were fully implemented, as it would give regulators the power to head off outbreaks before they even occur, as the Wall Street Journal reported:

Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration are searching fields in Colorado’s Rocky Ford region for clues as to how cantaloupes grown there this summer caused at least 100 illnesses and 18 deaths. But if a new law had been in place, they might have been there before the outbreak. […]

Under the current FDA food-inspection system, facilities are inspected fitfully—if at all. In fiscal 2010, the FDA inspected about 15% of U.S. food production facilities, about 0.1% of foreign import facilities and essentially no farms. Farms such as Jensen Farms, which grew the cantaloupes linked to the deadly outbreak of listeria, don’t get inspected unless contamination is suspected.

Now, the FDA is writing a set of rules that will require farms and food facilities to identify hazards over the next two years, with the goal of preventing disease outbreaks in the first place. The rules will be based on scientific research and the outcomes of investigations, the FDA says. For example, now that the agency has learned that listeria can appear in fruit, it is expected to craft a rule requiring farms to minimize the risk of that occurring.

The law was the biggest upgrade of the nation’s food safety regime in decades, but Republicans fought its passage, calling it a “government takeover” of food. And even after Obama signed it, House Republicans threatened to defund the law through the appropriations process. They say the law is just another burdensome government regulation and that the food industry does a good enough job policing itself. The tainted melon outbreak, alongside other outbreaks of contaminated food, shows that’s clearly not true.