Despite limited resources, the FDA started formulating food safety rules to prevent foodborne-disease outbreaks as it works to implement the food safety law.

This has been a summer brimming with a drumbeat of food-related illnesses-from strawberries containing E. coli that killed one person and sickened at least nine others to contaminated ground turkey and beef, imported papayas tainted with salmonella and sprouts grown in Idaho linked to salmonella illnesses in five states.

The landmark Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress last January was designed to reduce the frequency and severity of food safety problems, but the roll call of recent cases underscores the magnitude of the task. And what’s worse, taking on the expanded mission with the nation’s enormous budget concerns and Washington’s budget-slashing gives regulators little hope of receiving additional money. They may instead have their budgets cut by Congress.

“It’s an enormous undertaking,” says Mike Taylor, the Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods, whose role is to transform the law into sensible rules that farmers, food processors and importers can follow and regulators can enforce. “The stark choice is, we either find the resources or we forgo implementing this law the way Congress intended. You can’t build something brand new without the resources to do it. We have to have the resources to implement this law.”  

The agency is currently in the process of writing the food safety rules called for by the law, with the goal of preventing outbreaks like those this summer.

One of the most complex jobs involves setting standards for farmers to safely grow and harvest fruits and vegetables.

The deadline for the first draft of the farm rules is early next year. The agency so far hasn’t said what the farm rules will include, but they are expected to deal with basics like hand-washing stations for field workers, tests of irrigation water and measures to protect fields from wild animals that can track in bacteria.