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Published December 07, 2010, 08:15 AM

Senate passes food safety bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed the long-stalled bill to modernize food safety programs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Nov. 30 by a vote of 73-25, but the bill quickly became mired in a constitutional dispute over Senate provisions that would increase government revenue.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed the long-stalled bill to modernize food safety programs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Nov. 30 by a vote of 73-25, but the bill quickly became mired in a constitutional dispute over Senate provisions that would increase government revenue.

The bill was proposed in reaction to cases of food borne illness from spinach and imported jalapeno peppers and other vegetables that reduced consumer confidence about the safety of those foods. United Fresh, the large fruit and vegetable lobby, promoted the bill but later lost some of its faith in the bill because provisions were added to turn over inspection for small farmers to the states.

Tightening regulations

The bill would increase FDA inspections and reporting requirements for food safety on all foods that come under FDA, which means almost all foods except the meat, poultry and egg products that are inspected by the Agriculture Department.

The Senate passed the bill after lengthy debate and overcoming a filibuster from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who opposed it as an unwarranted expansion of government. Small farmers opposed it also, but many of their concerns were addressed by the amendments offered by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Those same amendments led to criticism from Western Growers, United Fresh and other groups representing large producers.

When the bill passed the Senate, United Fresh issued a statement urging the House to hold a conference on the bill rather than pass the Senate version.

“We are disappointed that the Senate continues to ignore the egregious loopholes allowed in this legislation that will erode consumer confidence in our nation’s food safety system,” United Fresh Senior Vice President Robert Guenther said. “Now, when going to a supermarket, restaurant, farmers market or roadside stand, consumers will be faced with the question of whether the fruits and vegetables offered for sale adhere to basic food safety standards or not. Unfortunately, instead of adhering to a science- and risk-based approach that was consistently the foundation of the underlying bill, the Senate has chosen to include a provision that will exempt certain segments of the food industry based on the size of operation, geographic location and customer base. This provision creates a gaping hole in the ability of consumers to trust the safety of all foods in the commercial marketplace.

But United Fresh did not say that it was opposed to the measure and did not respond by press time to a request for comment on whether it would urge Congress not to pass the Senate bill.

To the House

President Obama urged the House to pass the Senate version so that the Senate would not have to take up the bill again, but as soon as House leaders examined the bill, leaders of both parties complained that provisions raising fees violate a constitutional requirement that all revenue-raising measures begin in the House of Representatives.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters that the House planned to pass the Senate bill with its own number and send it back to the Senate. But according to a Dec. 1 report in the National Journal, Coburn was threatening to mount another filibuster against it.

Democrats in both houses were blaming each other for the legislative snafu, but also appeared determined to find a way to pass the bill. A spokeswoman for Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the committee is “confident that we can work with our House colleagues to find a path forward and get this bill to the president before the end of the year.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which fought hard for the provisions requiring different treatment for small producers, said the House leadership plans to attach the Senate-passed bill to another House bill and send it as a package back to the Senate for final approval. The coalition said that agribusiness groups were “misguided” in their opposition to the small farmer provisions and that the amendments would “ensure improved food safety without creating unnecessary barriers to farm profitability, good land stewardship, or enhanced access to local, fresh, healthy food.”

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