National Consumers League

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NCL Food Issues

Consumer, worker regulations being held up in broken process

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US Capitol building under grey skiesFrom the safety of the food we eat to the air we breathe and the cars we drive—Congress has enacted landmark laws to ensure our air, food, and autos meet minimum safety standards. Yet today, many of the rules required to execute these laws have been delayed and/or weakened as a result of a sluggish, and often hostile, regulatory agency. Due to unjustified delays, Congressional mandates and sensible safeguards are being held up, and consumers pay the price.

Many people don’t realize that even a law enacted by Congress can remain caught in regulatory doldrums because of a system set up to review and often delay a protective law from taking effect. The White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) plays the role of gatekeeper to a fault, too often, by trapping legitimate consumer, labor, or environmental protections. Some have described OIRA as the place where regulations “go to die.” At an October Senate briefing following the federal government shutdown, NCL and partnering organizations hosted a discussion of the broken regulatory process and the Congressional mandates being thwarted as a result.

An example: in 2010, 73 Senators joined forces to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the largest revamp of food safety efforts in decades, following a series of contaminated food outbreaks. President Obama signed the law in 2011. Nearly three years later, major changes needed to implement the law have not been finalized by the Food and Drug Administration. Despite clear statutory deadlines, several proposed regulations have been stalled in OIRA for more than a year—a period significantly beyond the executive order limiting review to 120 days. Even the food industry is welcoming this new set of guidelines to ensure their products are safe.

Many times, however, industry is not aligned with the wishes of consumer organizations and public health and safety groups. Car safety and worker safety regulations have been delayed due to industry complaints. In both instances, the corresponding industries have fought the regulations arguing the costs for implementation outweigh the benefits.

One of the delayed rules is the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act, passed in 2008. This law mandated that the Department of Transportation create a rear visibility safety standard which would expand the required field of view when backing up and provide drivers with a means of detecting the presence of a person or object behind their vehicle. Backup cameras, now widely available, would fix the visibility problem. Hundreds of children are killed and thousands seriously injured every year because a driver can’t see them while backing up.

The auto industry has been fighting the regulation, arguing it costs too much. Most car companies, however, offer a backup camera as an (oftentimes pricey) option. Honda offers the backup cameras as standard equipment on every vehicle it sells, providing the high water mark for the industry. NCL strongly believes that protections that would save children’s lives should not be available only to those who can afford it, but should be available as a standard piece of safety equipment.

Another delayed rule deals with worker exposure to silica dust. Breathing tiny particles of silica, which is basically sand, can damage the lungs and cause silicosis. Those who are afflicted can't get enough oxygen and they become weak. There’s no cure. Workers can encounter silica dust while doing all kinds of jobs, from mining, to manufacturing, to construction.

Experts estimate that there are thousands of new silicosis cases each year, and hundreds of deaths. Silica has also been linked to other diseases like lung cancer. But for almost two years, the Department of Labor (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations have been stalled at OIRA. While the government does limit the amount of silica workers can be exposed to, that exposure limit was set in the 1960s. The proposed regulation would cut the amount of exposure in half and potentially save thousands of workers lives. Industry groups argue that the current level is adequate to protect worker health and safety, and that any change could cost billions of dollars.

“The regulatory process has been hijacked by this unelected, largely hidden entity known as OIRA, where regulations can languish for years,” said NCL’s Sally Greenberg. “By relying on flawed cost-benefit analysis, demanding study after study, and listening to industry complaints to the exclusion of other commonsense arguments, OIRA too often failed to do its job, which is to review and release regulations in a timely fashion.”

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