Companies ravaged by illness scares seek stronger regulation
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The food safety modernization act signed by President Obama Jan. 4 could transform the way most foods are inspected for the U.S. market, but may become a political football as the Republicans increase their power in Congress.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the bill is "the most significant safety law of the last 100 years." But by the time this bill was finally passed in December, it had split agriculture groups and become part of the partisan debate over whether the government is reaching too deeply into Americans' lives.
Although the Senate approved the final bill by unanimous consent, the House passed the bill by a vote of 215 to 144, with only 10 Republicans voting for it.
The bill grants the Food and Drug Administration, a division of HHS, the power to require fruit, vegetable, peanut, egg, seafood and producers and processors of most other foods to establish food safety systems and also gives the FDA the power to recall tainted foods. Until now, FDA has only had the power to force producers and processors to act only after a problem has occurred. The new law also makes importers responsible for assuring that foreign producers are complying with U.S. food safety requirements.
It will not affect meat, poultry and egg products, which are inspected by the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, although it could have some impact on animal feed regulated by FDA.
Supporters in the House and Senate consider the bill one of the great accomplishments of the last Congress. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the likely incoming chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, has pledged not to provide the estimated $1.4 billion in additional tax dollars needed to pay for the added inspectors.
"There's a high possibility of trimming this whole package back," Kingston said, according to a report by Bloomberg. "While it's a great re-election tool to terrify people into thinking that the food they're eating is unsafe and unsanitary, and if not for the wonderful nanny-state politicians we'd be getting sick after every meal, the system we have is doing a darn good job."
Democrats note there are thousands of cases of illness and deaths from food safety each year and that the food safety system needed an overhaul.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who is now minority ranking member on the committee, said in a release that "It is disturbing that there will be an effort by Republicans to cut FDA funding and thus prevent this landmark new law from being implemented adequately. Without appropriate funding levels, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act would not be as effective in protecting our food supply and saving lives."
The bill's origins lie in outbreaks of foodborne illness from spinach, jalapeño peppers and peanut butter. Americans reduced consumption of those products and of tomatoes that were mistakenly implicated by the FDA as a source of foodborne illness before the agency discovered that imported jalapeño peppers were the actual cause. In response, the industries asked Congress to increase federal scrutiny to restore consumer confidence. The incidence of foodborne illness from salmonella-tainted eggs in 2010 increased the pressure on Congress to improve food safety.
The bill became controversial, however, when small farmers said a House-passed version of the bill would put them out of business because they would be subjected to regulations and fees that were more appropriate for bigger operations. After Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., added an amendment to the Senate bill that leaves regulations and inspection of small farms largely up to the states and exempts them from some requirements, big agriculture lost some of its enthusiasm for the legislation.
When the bill passed the Senate, groups representing large producers urged the House to amend it. Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, a large co-op, said that the Tester amendment's exemption for small production and processing operations that sell food locally to consumers who patronize grocery stores, restaurants and farmers' markets "rejects universally recognized food safety principals such as the importance of good worker hygiene, surface sanitation and temperature controls regardless of operation size or proximity to market."