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Published January 11, 2011, 02:40 PM

Obama signs food safety bill

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Jan. 4 signed a food safety modernization act that could transform the way most foods are inspected for the U.S. market, but may become a political football as Republicans increase their power in Congress.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Jan. 4 signed a food safety modernization act that could transform the way most foods are inspected for the U.S. market, but may become a political football as Republicans increase their power in Congress.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor, told reporters Jan. 3 the bill is “the most significant safety law of the last 100 years,” but by the time the bill finally was passed in December, it had split agriculture groups and became part of the partisan debate over whether the government is reaching too deeply into Americans’ lives. Though the Senate approved the final bill by unanimous consent, the House passed the bill by a vote of 215 to 144, with only 10 Republicans voting for it.

Greater oversight

The bill grants the Food and Drug Administration, a division of HHS, the power to require fruit, vegetable, peanut, egg, seafood and producers and processors of most other foods to establish food safety systems and also gives the FDA the power to recall tainted foods. Until now, FDA only has had the power to force producers and processors to act after a problem has occurred. The new law also makes importers responsible for assuring that foreign producers are complying with U.S. food safety requirements.

It will not affect meat, poultry and egg products, which are inspected by the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, though it could have some affect on animal feed regulated by FDA.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., consider the bill one of the great accomplishments of the last Congress. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the likely incoming chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, has pledged not to provide the estimated $1.4 billion in additional tax dollars needed to pay for the inspectors to make sure the industry follows the bill.

“There’s a high possibility of trimming this whole package back,” King-

ston said Jan 3, according to a report by Bloomberg. “While it’s a great re-election tool to terrify people into thinking that the food they’re eating is unsafe and unsanitary, and if not for the wonderful nanny-state politicians we’d be getting sick after every meal, the system we have is doing a darn good job.”

Needed overhaul?

Democrats note there are thousands of cases of illness and deaths from food safety each year and that the food safety system needed an overhaul.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who has been serving as chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and now will replace Kingston as the minority ranking member on the committee, said in a release: “It is disturbing that there will be an effort by Republicans to cut FDA funding and thus prevent this landmark new law from being adequately implemented. In the same week Republicans announced their intention to cut FDA funding for the new food safety law, it was announced that a salmonella outbreak involving alfalfa sprouts had sickened nearly 100 people in at least 15 states. Without appropriate funding levels, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act would not be as effective in protecting our food supply and saving lives.”

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said at the January 3 briefing the Obama administration will make the case for increased funding, but “We have to be realistic about the time frame. We are not talking about the whole system changing in a month.”

The bill’s origins lie in the outbreaks of foodborne illness from spinach, jalapeno peppers and peanut butter. After Americans reduced consumption of those products and of tomatoes that were improperly implicated by the FDA as a source of foodborne illness before the agency discovered that imported jalapeno peppers were the real cause of disease, the industries asked Congress to increase federal scrutiny to restore consumer confidence.

The incidence of food-borne illness from salmonella-tainted eggs in 2010 increased the pressure on Congress to improve food safety.

Issues with the bill

The bill became controversial, however, when small farmers said a House-passed version of the bill would put them out of business because they would be subjected to regulations and fees more appropriate for bigger operations. After Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., added an amendment to the Senate bill that leaves regulations and inspection of small farms largely up to states and exempts them from some requirements, big agriculture groups lost some enthusiasm for the legislation.

When the bill passed the Senate, groups representing large producers urged the House to amend it.

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, a large co-op, said the Tester amendment’s exemption for small production and processing operations that sell food locally to consumers who patronize grocery stores, restaurants and farmers’ markets “rejects universally recognized food safety principals such as the importance of good worker hygiene, surface sanitation and temperature controls regardless of operation size or proximity to market.” Nassif added, “Microbial contamination knows no boundaries. It can affect the smallest farm or garden plot as well as a larger operation. It can come from your backyard or travel long distances. It can be present in an organic or conventional crop. It may be present in raw or processed food. Any time it occurs, someone, somewhere may be at risk. To an industry that is dedicated to continuously improving on-farm food safety practices, inclusion of exemptions from food safety laws is a huge step backward and will send the wrong message to the food industry, but most importantly to the American consumer. “

Supporters

When the Senate version passed the House, Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents fruit and vegetable growers, said the bill “will do much good; it is, after all, the first overhaul of the food safety system in seven decades.” But Guenther added that the good “is still accompanied by the bad,” namely the exemptions for small operations.

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noted, however, the bill also includes a “one-strike” provision that allows the FDA to revoke such an exemption if the small farm or manufacturer has food safety violations.

Consumer advocates and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food processors and retailers, were strong supporters of the bill and representatives of those groups participated in the Jan. 3 White House briefing.

Eric Olson of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which promoted the bill, said it will allow FDA to move from inspection to prevention. Pam Bailey of the grocery manufacturers, said “strong government oversight is a critical part of our government’s food safety net.”

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