Congress passed a landmark law. Then everyone walked away.
Mario Wagner for Politico
The bacteria-tainted apple that probably killed Shirlee Frey traveled hundreds of miles from an orchard to a packinghouse and then to a factory that coated it in caramel. It never came anywhere close to being examined or tested by a food-safety inspector.
The California woman died in December, about a month after she ate some of the Halloween treats she bought for her grandchildren. At the end, her brain was so swollen she couldn’t breathe on her own. Frey, 81, was one of seven fatalities in a listeria outbreak caused by caramel apples that spread to 12 states. Common bacteria such as listeria, salmonella and E. coli kill several thousand people each year and sicken some 48 million Americans. Brad Frey believes his mother and hundreds of others might still be alive if a sweeping law hailed as a complete revamp of the nation’s broken food-safety system had been put into action.
“This didn’t have to happen,” Frey said.
He may well be right.
According to a POLITICO investigation, the Obama administration and Congress have all but squandered an opportunity to give the anemic Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for the safety of 80 percent of the nation’s food supply, a level of oversight the public long assumed it already had.
On paper, the law that Congress passed in late 2010 — known as the Food Safety Modernization Act — was bigger than anything since Teddy Roosevelt cleaned up the meatpacking industry. The law mandated more inspections and much tougher anti-contamination standards for everything from peaches to imported pesto sauce, and it placed more emphasis on preventing outbreaks than on chasing them down after people become sick.