Nearly two years after Consumer Reports and Dr. Oz sparked national concern after finding arsenic in popular brands of children’s apple juice, a handful of Democrats in the House and Senate are asking the White House Office of Management and Budget to release a long-delayed voluntary guidance on limiting arsenic, a known carcinogen, in juice products.
The recent letters from lawmakers, which argue that delays on such issues have a negative impact on public health, come right as OMB is going through a major leadership transition. Syliva Mathews Burwell was recently confirmed by the Senate as the new director, taking over for Jeffrey Zients, a deputy director who had been acting director for the past year. Zients, who the administration had dubbed the nation’s first “chief performance officer,” left OMB last week and the agency’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs – the increasingly powerful entity that oversees the review of economically significant regulations – will also soon have a new head. In late April, President Obama nominated Federal Trade Commission economist and law professor Howard Shelanski, who is awaiting Senate confirmation.
Amid these changes, Democrats are expressing frustrations about dozens of delayed regulations, whether they be environment, worker safety, or food-related.
“I’m writing OMB to remind the agency that there are human costs to delay,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), chair of a key judiciary subcommittee, wrote in a letter sent to OMB last week. “Parents should not have to worry about whether the juice they give their child has arsenic in it, and workers should not have to risk contracting lung disease while on the job. Rules and guidelines that could prevent both of these problems have been moved from the back burner to the deep freeze at OMB.”
Blumenthal noted that 84 of the 153 regulatory actions under review at OIRA have been there for more than 90 days, which is supposed to be the limit for review. For example, Blumenthal pointed to a rule meant to protect workers from inhaling silica dust, submitted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that has now been “sitting before [OIRA]” for more than two years.
“Given the health and safety implications of these agency actions, the length of delay in OIRA’s review is unacceptable,” wrote Blumenthal.
The senator is asking OMB to immediately complete its review of languishing regulations and return them to the agencies so they can move forward. “Otherwise, I would like you to please explain in writing the reasons for delay, and propose an alternate timeline for completion of OIRA’s review process.”
In a separate letter to OMB, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) last week urged the administration to make progress on limiting arsenic in juice. DeLauro and Pallone have sponsored legislation that would mandate enforceable standards for heavy metals like arsenic in food products, similar to what the government already has in place for drinking water and bottled water.
“We believe that while FDA should implement enforceable standards for the maximum allowable levels of arsenic in rice and juice, the Agency’s guidance document on arsenic in juice is an important first step that will inform and educate industry and consumers,” state DeLauro and Pallone in the letter. “We applaud FDA for its efforts to address the issue and develop new guidelines to reduce the risk posed by arsenic in apple juice. It is inexcusable that these guidelines are stalled while consumers continue to be exposed to potentially dangerous levels of arsenic.” (The lawmakers were likely referring to FDA’s 2011 testing of apple juice products and the agency’s consideration of a standard for arsenic in juice).
FDA says it remains confident in the overall safety of the nation’s apple juice, because the vast majority of products tested contain “low amounts” of inorganic arsenic, which is a health concern. But testing by Consumer Reports, FDA, Dr. Oz and others have found that some products contained levels of arsenic well above the standards set for drinking water.
“We want to minimize the public’s exposure to arsenic in foods as much as we can,” FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Micahel Taylor in a 2011 consumer update, which added: “For that reason, FDA plans to consider all the relevant evidence and, based on this work, FDA may set a guidance or other maximum level to further reduce arsenic in apple juice and juice products.”
The agency has drafted a risk assessment and draft action levels for arsenic in juice, but, according to a January Food Chemical News report, clearance by OMB is taking longer than FDA expected.
So what, exactly, is the status of those draft guidelines today? Presumably, the documents submitted by FDA remain under review at OMB, but the White House agency did not respond to inquiries from Food Safety News. A spokesman for the FDA was unable to answer questions about when the agency submitted guidance documents to OMB or discuss anything related to the status of the process.
“Given the attention the agency has paid to this important issue, we think the OMB should release the guidance so that the juice industry can move forward to provide consumers with better assurances that the levels of arsenic in juice will at least be monitored,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. “We have standards for arsenic bottled water, there is no understandable reason we don’t have those (or guidances) for food and beverages.”