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Published April 19, 2010, 01:14 PM

Senate bill strengthens food safety

WASHINGTON — The Senate is getting ready to consider a bill to modernize food safety operations at the Food and Drug Administration.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Senate is getting ready to consider a bill to modernize food safety operations at the Food and Drug Administration.

The bill, which passed the House in a somewhat different version last year, was expected to come up the week of April 12, but has been postponed because the Senate wants to consider reform of the financial services industry as soon as possible.

The bill generally strengthens FDA’s enforcement capabilities and has the support of most of the food industry, particularly the fruit and vegetable sector, which has been stung in recent years by outbreaks of foodborne illness. The bill also is the first FDA bill Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has written since he took over the chairmanship of the committee after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Harkin previously chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee and has long taken an interest in food safety.

Fighting for a strict bill

In what appeared to be a response to statements on the Tea Party Coalition Web site that the food safety bills would disproportionately hurt small and organic farmers, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said, “There is no death panel for small and organic producers in this legislation.”

In a speech to the Organic Trade Council, DeLauro noted that the House version of the bill requires FDA to take the needs of small and organic producers into consideration in writing the regulations for facilities regulations and traceability of foods back to the farm. The point of the legislation, she said, is to regulate firms such as the Peanut Corp. of America, whose tainted products caused a major outbreak of foodborne illness .

DeLauro also said she is worried about “disturbing” news that the Senate version of the bill is being weakened as Harkin writes a manager’s amendment before the bill goes to the floor. DeLauro said she has heard that the inspection plan has been “watered down,” that some industries are seeking exemptions and that provision for treatment of food imports are moving from regimes that would be “equal to” the U.S. food safety regime to an “equivalency” system that might not be as strict.

DeLauro said she continually has watched “trade trumping the issue of public health” and vowed to fight in conference for a strict bill. She did not provide details about the provisions she fears.

Amendment concerns

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small, environmentally-minded farmers, said on its Web site that an amendment proposed by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to amend the traceability and recordkeeping section of the bill still is under negotiation.

“We remain very interested in maintaining or securing exemptions from traceback recordkeeping requirements for direct farmer-to-consumer or farmer-to-stores or restaurants sales as well as for farm identity preserved sales in general, and for limiting farmer recordkeeping to the point of first sale,” the group said.

The coalition also noted that Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has proposed amendments to exempt food facilities with less than $500,000 gross sales from preventative control plan requirements and from traceback/recordkeeping. The coalition said those amendments likely would be debated on the floor.

Agribusiness is concerned about an amendment proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban Bisphenol A, known commonly as BPA, in food and beverage containers. When Feinstein and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced a stand-alone bill to ban BPA, Feinstein noted that the HHS National Toxicology Program has cited “some concern” that Bisphenol A may affect neural development in fetuses, infants and children at current human exposures. She said that dozens of additional peer-reviewed scientific papers also have found evidence of adverse health effects such as increases in breast and prostate cancer risk, heart disease, liver abnormalities and diabetes. But BPA is widely used in making containers, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has supported the bill, wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that the group will oppose it if a ban or phase-out of BPA is in the bill. GMA noted that the FDA currently is conducting a safety assessment of BPA and said a ban would “short-circuit the agency’s review process.”

Traceability

A coalition of mainstream farm and agribusiness groups wrote Harkin and HELP Committee ranking member Mike Enzi April 14 that they are worried about recordkeeping and traceability issues in the FDA food safety bill that is expected to come up on the Senate floor. The coalition, which includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, commodity groups and food processors, said it would oppose any traceability or recordkeeping provisions that would prohibit or restrict the traditional receiving, storage, handling and shipping of agricultural commodities or food/feed ingredients on a commingled basis or that subjects farms and other facilities not registered under the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act to new recordkeeping requirements. Their concerns are somewhat different from those expressed by the small farmers and processors.

The sustainable agriculture coalition also said the bill would contain an amendment sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to provide FDA with the authority to either exempt farms engaged in low-or no-risk processing or comingling products from several farms from new regulatory requirements; amendments sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to reduce paperwork and prohibit FDA from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire consultants to write food safety plans; an amendment sponsored by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers. The group also said the bill will contain a provision inserted by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms.

The House-passed bill contains new user fees to give FDA more money for enforcement, but the draft of the Senate bill relies on increased appropriations. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg endorsed the House version, but said the administration is flexible about how increased funding for FDA activities is achieved.

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