Food Safety Legislation Delayed

Long-awaited legislation to reform and modernize the nation’s food safety system will likely be put off until next year while the Senate continues to grapple with healthcare reform and other contentious issues.

Supporters had hoped Congress would pass legislation this year to overhaul the nation’s food safety laws for the first time in seven decades by requiring companies to implement safety plans and giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to seize unsafe food shipments, order recalls, and fine violators. While the House passed its version of the legislation (HR 2749) with wide bipartisan support on July 30, the Senate has held only one committee hearing, on a different version of the bill (S 510), in late October. As of press time, the Senate was not expected to do much more until after the winter recess.

“My understanding is that the Senate will not take up food safety until next year,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a leading reform advocate and sponsor of a separate bill that would remove food oversight from the FDA and give it to a new agency called the Food Safety Administration. “This is about food safety science and where we want to go,” she told a global food safety policy forum convened by the Waters Corporation and the Center for Science in the Public Interest on October 14 in Washington.

But Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), is pushing to make progress more quickly. “Hopefully, we can get this bill passed and to the White House before year’s end,” he said at a HELP Committee hearing on the food safety legislation in October. That timetable would be challenging, at best, since the committee as well as the full Senate first need to vote on the bill and then iron out any differences with the House version, all in the midst of other pressing issues.

Apart from the legislative process, the FDA and other agencies have been particularly active this year, rolling out several initiatives. These include:

  • launching an online Reportable Food Registry (RFR) to which manufacturers and processors must report potential contamination within 24 hours;
  • issuing commodity-specific guidances for growers and pro-cessors of leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons to help prevent contamination and foodborne illnesses; and
  • awarding $17.5 million in grants to support food and feed safety initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels.

“We can’t sit back and wait for a dangerous outbreak or epidemic and then do something,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the National Food Policy Conference, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), in September. “We need to be proactive and prevent these crises from happening in the first place.”

Bills on the Hill

In late July, the House passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (HR 2749), spearheaded by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). The measure passed only after exempting producers of poultry, livestock, and feed grain from most of the requirements. The bill freed most farms from registration fees, record keeping, and traceability requirements and limited the scope of records required of grain handlers, restaurants, and grocery stores. These exemptions were inserted at the last minute after members of the House Agriculture Committee and many Republicans expressed concern that the bill would give the FDA too much authority over farms and food facilities already regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As passed, HR 2749 requires most U.S. food manufacturing companies to register with the FDA and pay a $500 annual fee per facility (capped at $175,000 per company per year). The bill also requires FDA inspection of high-risk facilities at least every six to 12 months, low-risk facilities at least every 18 to 36 months, and warehouses and food storage facilities at least once every five years.

About Ted Agres

Ted Agres covers food safety regulatory and legislative issues from the nation’s capital. He has 40 years of experience in reporting on issues such as health policy, medical technology, and pharmaceutical development. He holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. He enjoys playing the piano, amateur radio, and paintball. He lives in Laurel, MD.

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