The public should not hesitate to be more involved in the food safety policymaking process, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen and Michael Taylor, the nation’s two leading food safety officials, told an audience at the Food Safety Summit in Baltimore late last week. Dr. Hagen is Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Taylor is Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both Hagen and Taylor encouraged stakeholders of all kinds to get involved and comment on regulations. “Never underestimate how important your voices are,” said Dr. Hagen, when asked about the lengthy process required to move forward on food safety policies. That process now regularly includes a months-long review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is where the most critical Food Safety Modernization Act Rules were recently stuck for more than a year, a move that frustrated industry stakeholders and public health advocates. A handful of food safety rules, including the foreign supplier verification program set to overhaul import safety, which was required by FSMA, and a rule that would require mechanically tenderized meat products be labelled, have now also been in limbo at OMB for many months. “If you want to know why something is still sitting [at OMB], I suggest that you ask [OMB],” said Hagen, during a food safety town hall, attended by several hundred food industry professionals and health officials. Hagen reminded the audience that while she and Taylor lead food safety initiatives at the agencies, they “don’t control the entire process” and it helps to hear feedback on what the public wants. Both officials said the OMB review process was necessary, but admitted that the delays can be frustrating. “It’s a necessary part of the process. OMB is there for a reason,” said Dr. Hagen, who said there was a lot of constructive “back and forth” that happens between the agency and the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the reviews. “Sometimes we need to be able to step back and look at the questions that might be raised, that we might not be considering.” “But it can be frustrating, because it’s hard to get anything done in Washington, DC,” she said. “When we make something a priority and we say, this is important, we think it’s going to protect consumers, we want it to happen right away, but there are checks and balances, I think, in any system we work in and we can’t just push things through because we think that they’re supposed to happen.” What about that rule to label mechanically tenderized meats, specifically? “We look forward to getting that rule out as soon as possible,” said Hagen. “There is frustration,” admitted Taylor, explaining that he has a long perspective on the process because has been involved with federal rulemaking, on and off, for more than three decades. “There’s just no question that OMB has an important role to play. It works under executive order…. but it’s a fact of life that there is an accumulation of analytical requirements and box-checking requirements for rulemaking that have made it far more cumbersome and time-consuming than it has been historically. What that means is that the process is heavy, it’s weighty.” “What that means to me, and I’ll be frank about this, is that we need to all work as part of this process, and that has a public dimension to it. You shouldn’t hesitate to engage in this. I think the government needs to know that there’s strong public support to get stuff done,” Taylor told the audience. “We need to all keep working hard, be unrelenting, and let that frustration be motivating rather than debilitating. That’s the spirit we’re pushing forward with at FDA.” Taylor said the public should expect the foreign supplier verification rule, which is being anxiously anticipated by the food industry and especially by importers, to be released “soon.” “We’re right at the last stages of the administration’s review we’re hoping for clearance very soon,” he said. “We’ve given people plenty to chew on already and there will plenty more to come soon. Don’t plan any long vacations this summer.” Photo courtesy of FDA flickr stream.