Everyone knows about the food safety rules held up by “oh-eye-rah,” or as it is formally known at the White House, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). But it’s not just the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that is waiting; the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has food safety rules on hold too. OIRA – the executive branch’s regulatory referee – has recently turned into a bottleneck for the rules FDA needs to implement the new Food Safety Modernization Act. The Act has been the subject of a lot of attention and, in recent months, even a lawsuit. A USDA rule requiring meat businesses to improve grinding logs and inventories, however, has gone relatively unnoticed, but this law is also held up by the powerful little White House office. USDA says the stronger record keeping requirements were already in the works when a Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak involving beef ground by the Hannaford supermarket chain a year ego sickened 20 people in the Northeastern United States. But that outbreak increased the urgency for new rules, says the agency. And while the supermarket chain has beefed up its grinding logs and inventory records since the outbreak, USDA’s new rule remains held up by OIRA. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) told the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram she is “extremely disappointed” that USDA has not been able to put the new rules in place yet. Last January, she wrote Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging the agency to “adopt tougher regulations for retailers to require that they keep track of the source of all meat that is put into ground beef they sell.” The Maine congresswoman also said the new regulations should require the quick determination of the source of contaminated meat. When USDA’ s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) investigated the outbreak involving the 181-store Hannaford chain, it discovered problems with the retailer’s grinding logs and inventory records. Hannaford was using trim from a dozen suppliers and its butchers did not always record when leftovers were used from steaks and roasts. Second, grinding machines were not always cleaned between batches. Those practices were consistent with existing USDA rules, but the potential for cross-contamination is evident. And such long-used practices make tracking a pathogen to its source almost impossible. Neither the retailer nor FSIS were able to name the supplier responsible for the outbreak. Hannaford was left pulling 100,000 pounds of ground beef, and dealing with the ensuing lawsuits from its customers. All but two of the 20 illnesses linked to the outbreak were in the five northeast states of Massachusetts (1), Maine (4), New Hampshire (6), New York (6) and Vermont (1). Cases also occurred in Hawaii (1) and Kentucky (1). Other than when there are long delays, the agency-ORIA process is conducted almost entirely in secret. The agencies draft the rules, and ORIA’s involvement as a reviewer is part of internal process. About ten professionals are said work at OIRA, itself a unit of the White House’s Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB). It was created by the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act and exists in part to check on regulations to make sure they do not unnecessarily choke off economic activity. The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by bipartisan majorities of the 110th Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011. Like most laws, it gives FDA the mandate of writing new food safety rules and regulations. For FDA, the four most central regulations of FSMA have been held up for most of 2012. In total, seven major food regulations required for FDA to implement the new law have not yet made it through, according to a lawsuit brought against the federal government by the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health. The key rules under review — preventive controls for food facilities, preventive controls for animal feed facilities, the foreign supplier verification program and produce safety regulations — were supposed to be the key to shifting the U.S. food safety system from primarily reactive to prevention-focused. The federal government wants the lawsuit dismissed, but groups bringing it say each of the measures should have been through rule making and implemented by now. Plus, they say, at least nine more FSMA deadlines coming up in early 2013.