Senate Committee Approves Revamp of Food Safety System


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Senate Committee Approves Revamp of Food Safety System

Andrew Zajac

November 18, 2009

Washington Bureau – A Senate Committee Wednesday unanimously approved a much-awaited overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws, though it gave little hint of how it would pay for the sweeping but costly reform of the Food and Drug Administration’s system for protecting much of what the nation eats and drinks.

Lawmakers also gave themselves some time to figure out the financing, however. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said there’s little chance the food bill will hit the Senate floor until early next year because health care overhaul legislation is a higher immediate priority.

Harkin’s committee approved the legislation with only minor tweaks, including authorizing the federal government to pay for beefing up states’ food safety capabilities, adding whistleblower protections and requiring the government to take into account organic agricultural standards and other factors when writing food safety rules.

Both the Senate bill and a parallel bill approved earlier by the House, would significantly upgrade the FDA’s regulatory powers. For example, both bills would, for the first time, give the FDA the power to order a food recall on its own authority instead of merely requesting that a producer institute one. But in other ways, the Senate measure, sponsored by Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, gives the FDA fewer powers and is considered somewhat friendlier to the food industry. Impetus for reform came from a string of costly and sometimes fatal outbreaks of food-borne illness in recent years involving peanuts, jalapeno peppers, cookie dough, spinach and other foods.

Harkin backed away from an earlier suggestion that Congress could pass the bill before the end of the year. “I don’t see how we can do it by Christmas,” he said. “Honestly, it all hangs on the health care bill.”

Harkin told reporters he wants to get cost estimates for the legislation from the Congressional Budget Office before deciding how to propose paying for the expanded regimen of product tracking and inspections called for in the legislation. Both he and Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, the committee’s ranking Republican, spoke against levying user fees on the food industry.

“If this is something for public protection, it’s something we all should pay for,” Harkin said.

The House-approved food safety bill would cost an estimated $3.7 billion over five year, partly paid for by a $500 annual fee on food processing facilities.

A leading consumer advocacy group urged Harkin to reconsider his opposition to such fees.

If the food safety budget comes solely from appropriations, Congress will be tempted to cut it if a year or two goes by without significant food-caused sickness outbreaks, said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.

“We feel like you need a dedicated revenue stream for this,” Halloran said.

Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said his group, which represents food, beverage and consumer products companies, understands that the frequency of food facility inspections needs to be increased and isn’t necessarily opposed to user fees.

But GMA would rather see such fees used for rebuilding the FDA’s scientific research capacity because in the long run that is the best path to reducing outbreaks of illness, Faber said.

SOURCE Chicago Tribune

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