The suspected link between the deaths of two Kentuckians and salmonella-tainted cantaloupes should spur President Barack Obama to free food-safety rules that are stuck in his White House.
Congress mandated the higher standards in a rare act of bipartisanship in late 2010. The Food Safety Modernization Act followed repeated outbreaks of illnesses from such seemingly innocent sources as spinach, eggs and peanuts.
The law's implementation is in limbo, waiting on the White House Office of Management and Budget to finish reviewing proposed regulations that were supposed to be out in January. The OMB says it's simply taking this long to give the complex regulations the vetting they need.
We suspect the foot dragging is more about poison politics. Obama's detractors would twist the first new food-safety rules in 70 years into a budget-busting big government overreach that will lead to mass starvation. (Look at how Republicans doomed protections for young migrant workers in industrial-scale agriculture by inaccurately insisting kids would be banned from doing chores on their own families' farms.)
With the election less than 11 weeks away, the political calculation is obvious. But other numbers should be more compelling: About 3,000 Americans die each year of food-borne disease.
Some 48 million (that's one in six) get sick and 128,000 are hospitalized from eating contaminated food, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This "significant public health burden" is largely preventable, says the Food and Drug Administration.
The new law will provide prevention-based standards for all aspects of fruit and vegetable production, from planting to harvesting, processing and shipping. There's no plan to ever inspect every farm, but the new standards will foster science-based best practices.
The FDA will get mandatory recall authority and new tools for policing imported food and for responding to outbreaks of food-borne sickness.
There's no way to know whether the new rules would prevent any particular outbreak. Pathogens can invade the food supply chain in many ways.
In the latest case, it's still unclear how cantaloupes from southwestern Indiana became contaminated or whether the problem goes beyond the one farm that has been identified.
In addition to the two people from the Owensboro area who have died, 178 people in 21 states, including two in Lexington, have been sickened by the same strain of salmonella traced to the Indiana cantaloupes.
Last year, listeria in cantaloupes from a Colorado packing shed killed 30 people.
Balancing food safety with the demands of producers and the need for affordable food is complicated. The new law must not be allowed to disadvantage small, independent farms while tightening the ag-industrial complex's control of what we eat. The law has provisions for protecting smaller producers.
But, as always, the devil will be in the details. That's why the administration should get the regulations out for public comment, the most important phase of rule-making, as soon as possible.
Obama might discover that voters want government to protect the food supply.
Meanwhile, keep eating fresh melons, just give them a really good scrubbing.