Despite Senate Passage, Food Safety Bill in Limbo

After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) passed in the U.S. Senate by a bipartisan vote of 73-25 on Nov. 30, the next step was supposed to be a quick trip back to the House of Representatives, which would vote to adopt the Senate’s version of the legislation. Instead, the bill is languishing after a last-minute rules snafu.

In my last conversations with House staff, no one really knows yet what they’re going to do.

–Eileen Harley, Grocery Manufacturers Association

According to the Constitution, only the House can initiate legislation that levies taxes. And the House Ways and Means Committee has determined that certain provisions of the food safety bill that impose new fees on industry for things like re-inspecting facilities count as taxes, so the bill should have started in the House, not the Senate.

Several things could happen to resolve the conflict, said Eileen Harley, director of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has strongly supported the legislation. “The House can drop the Senate bill into an HR bill and vote on it and then pass it back to the Senate, for example,” she said. “But my option requires both houses to vote again, which is time-consuming. In my last conversations with House staff, no one really knows yet what they’re going to do.”

The House and Senate are both expected to be in session until Dec. 17. It may be more difficult to finalize the food safety bill in a new Congress. “Everything is changing at the last minute, which is how a lame-duck session always works,” Harley said.

Additional last-minute objections have arisen because of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and included in the final Senate version of the bill. Tester’s amendment exempts certain small and family farms and producers from the bill’s requirements, something industry representatives like the United Fresh Produce Association object to.

“Exempting ‘small’ farms from following federal food safety standards, as the Senate bill currently does, undermines the intent of credible food safety systems, which are based on risk and science, not arbitrary criteria,” stated United Fresh and 22 other organizations representing the fruit and vegetable industry in a Dec. 1 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner.

Harley said that while the Constitutional issue is a stumbling block, “the issues surrounding the Tester amendment language are bigger and could stand in the way of getting the food safety bill.”

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