By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it is having difficulty implementing expansive new rules to improve food safety, nearly two years after President Barack Obama signed the standards into law, because of a lack of funding.
FDA chief Margaret Hamburg predicted on Monday that her agency "very soon" will issue new regulations needed to enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping piece of legislation enacted to upgrade the security of the U.S. food supply after a deadly salmonella outbreak in 2009.
Hamburg said the implementation process has been slow because Congress has not provided sufficient funds to meet the law's ambitious demands.
The legislation imposes the biggest changes in food safety since the 1930s and requires the FDA to undertake a major shift from a longstanding reactive role to a system designed to prevent food-borne outbreaks. It also calls for the agency to create new science-based safety standards for fruits and vegetables, packaged foods and food imports.
"Implementing that broadly expansive mandate with limited resources has been a challenge," Hamburg told a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Her comments come at a time when the FDA is working to meet a host of new priorities, including improved international drug regulation, while analysts and industry officials say the agency's resources could fall prey to deficit reduction talks that are due to resume in Congress after the November 6 election.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, which Obama signed into law in January 2011, represents an effort to step up the federal government's battle with food-borne illnesses that afflict nearly 50 million Americans each year, killing thousands.
The United States, by most measures, has some of the safest food in the world. Still, roughly one in six people get sick from eating tainted products each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Deadlines under the law for major regulations intended to safeguard produce, packaged foods and food imports have passed without the issuance of even preliminary guidelines.
"It has been frustrating," Hamburg said. "We are moving forward. But it has been harder and slower than any of us would have wanted."
She called on private industry to help finance the law's provisions, which give the agency the power to mandate recalls when outbreaks strike. The FDA regulates about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply. Among the exceptions are meat and poultry, which are overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"What we have is a really nice car without any gas in the tank," said Erik Olson, food program director for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
He says the FDA's $866 million food safety budget could need hundreds of millions of dollars more to pay for the field the inspectors and scientists required to meet the new duties.
The legislation became law two years after a massive salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter killed nine people and sickened nearly 700, half of them children.
There have been about three-dozen major food-borne outbreaks since then, according to the CDC. There have been about dozen so far in 2012, including a recent salmonella outbreak involving peanut butter.
(Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Tim Dobbyn)