Family farm and consumer advocates have been working for weeks to ensure meaningful public comment on the FDA's proposed food safety rules.
Now the government website that serves as a portal for the public's comments on food safety is offline, out-of-service, or even refusing to accept comments.
"This is potentially disenfranchising thousands of farmers and consumers, and is flat-out unacceptable," says Will Fantle, Codirector of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. "We have been working for months, as have many other organizations across the country, to raise public awareness of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the proposed rules developed to implement it. With the public comment period set to close on Nov. 15, we have received numerous reports from our members that they cannot send in timely comments because the portal for doing so, regulations.gov, is not working."
The FSMA was passed by Congress in late 2010 after anger boiled over following years of food poisoning outbreaks, associated with dangerous fecal pathogens, that impacted peanuts, spinach, sprouts, melons and imported foods. The FDA's draft rules, however, saddle local and organic family-scale farmers with unnecessary and expensive prevention practices more appropriate for riskier industrial processing and distribution systems. And the draft rules fail to address a health control strategy for the primary source of many of the fecal-generated pathogens - industrial-scale feedlots and livestock facilities.
Many visitors to the FDA's comment portal, for the two dockets found at www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FDA-2011-N-0921-0199 and www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FDA-2011-N-0920-0188, are reporting this message: "We are experiencing temporary technical difficulties and are working to restore full operations as soon as possible."
This message has been sporadically reported by members of the public for the past several weeks and now appears to be the standard case for anyone attempting to access the webpage.
At other times, citizens have reportedly been advised to resubmit any comments they might have posted while other visitors to the website, in November, were greeted with a message that "planned system maintenance" was being conducted and would be completed by Aug. 6.
"In light of this ongoing barrier to public comments, we believe it is incumbent on the FDA to fix their webpage problems immediately and then extend the public comment period for another 30 days thereafter," said Fantle. In a letter dated today, sent by mail to Michael R. Taylor the deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Cornucopia formally requested the extension. "These rules threaten to drive many family-scale farmers out of business, and they and the consumers who buy their fruits and vegetables deserve to be heard so that the FDA can make needed changes."
This is not the only time that the federal government's public comment portal has experienced difficulties. Cornucopia has noted in the past that individuals seeking to provide feedback on proposals affecting the USDA's National Organic Program and its National Organic Standards Board have encountered similar website availability issues. The farm policy organization has directly relayed those observations to officials during public meetings. Yet little appears to have changed.
"We intend to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request this time inquiring about the problems associated with the FDA's food safety comment page screw-up," added Fantle. "We are very interested in understanding more about the nature of this problem and if it was created by a contractor working for the government-maybe even the same contractor/contractors that have been implicated in the debacle concerning the government's health care website."