Sen. Coburn wants debate about costs; Sen. Tester wants small farms exempted

By JERRY HAGSTROM

For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The food-safety bill that the United Fresh Produce Association and other groups pushed after outbreaks of foodborne disease from spinach and jalapeno peppers reduced consumer confidence is in trouble.

United Fresh and other groups initially thought that tougher regulation on domestic and foreign production would restore consumer confidence, but Robert Guenther, a lobbyist for United Fresh, told Capital Press on Sept. 22 that the group favors a bill to give increased powers to the Food and Drug Administration only if it is based on "science and risk."

Groups representing small and organic farmers and those that sell locally have been negotiating with congressional leaders for those farmers to be exempted from some of the requirements, but Guenther said that any exemptions should be based on science rather than size of farm or to whom they sell.

United Fresh did not participate in a Sept. 20 press conference when lobbyists for other food industry and consumer groups backing the food-safety bill urged the Senate to take up the bill before the recess. The groups did not offer any proposals to address the problems that have kept the bill off the Senate floor.

An FDA food-safety bill has passed the House, but an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring the bill up quickly faltered when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would insist on a full debate because he was concerned about costs of the bill. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also wants to exempt small, organic and local producers from some requirements and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also wants a floor vote on an amendment to ban the use of bisphenol-A, a common plastic additive known as BPA, in baby products.

"The groups represented here don't always agree about food and nutrition policy. We have joined forces today because we do agree that the burden of foodborne illness in the U.S. is far too great," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America as she stood with representatives of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, the Food Marketing Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Charitable Trust.

FDA is responsible for food safety for most non-meat foods, but under laws passed in the 1930s rarely inspects processing plants and usually addresses problems after outbreaks of foodborne illness occur. The bill would give FDA increased regulatory authority over domestic and foreign food producers, and require food producers to file detailed reports with FDA. A companion bill has passed the House, but there are substantial differences in the bills.

Foreman said the Senate bill "changes the FDA's food-safety paradigm. It shifts the agency's mandate from reaction to prevention."

Industry groups have backed the bill in an effort to restore consumer confidence that has been weakened by outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by tainted spinach, imported jalapeno peppers and eggs, all of which are supposed to be inspected by FDA.

The National Association of Manufacturers usually opposes increased regulation but favors the bill it will provide "certainty" to both the industry and consumers and because "the benefits outweigh the costs," said Rosario Palmieri, NAM vice president for infrastructure and regulatory policy.

The United Fresh Produce Association opposes any exemptions for certain types of produces on the grounds that all farms and plants should be subject to the same level of food-safety requirements and that any foodborne illness that would come from any type of farm operation would hurt the entire industry.

Corey Henry of the American Frozen Food Institute said that if the Feinstein BPA amendment is added, the frozen food producers would have to reassess their support for the bill.

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