Food safety reform likely
by Christine Souza

April 29, 2009 6:03am
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•  Congress shoring up food safety regulations

•  ‘We can't repeat the failures of the past’

In response to incidences of food-borne illness being reported around the country, a series of food safety bills has surfaced on Capitol Hill in an attempt to strengthen the nation's food system and further protect consumer health. With California growing a large amount of the world's food supply, including both produce and livestock, the California Farm Bureau Federation is paying close attention to the food safety debate.

"Farmers and ranchers understand the importance of food safety more than anyone since it affects their businesses and their livelihood. We have seen recalls do irreparable damage to several important agricultural sectors in a very short time period, and as a result, business practices improved," says Josh Rolph, CFBF director of national affairs. "No question there has been heightened sensitivities from everyone, but we can't repeat the failures of the past. In the spring of 2008, tomatoes were recalled, and while California tomato growers suffered incredible losses, it turned out that jalapeño peppers from Mexico were the prime culprit.

"We need to ensure that if a contaminated product comes from another state, California is not painted with the same broad brush."

Nearly four months into the 111th Congress, legislators have proposed eight bills to tackle the very important issue of food safety with at least one more to follow.

"These bills being debated in both chambers of Congress are setting the stage in the food safety debate. We grow half of the nation's fruits and vegetables, so whatever happens in Washington is going to have a major bearing on California agriculture," says Mr. Rolph. "We just learned that House Ag Chairman Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is expected to weigh in with his own food safety legislation."

House Resolution 875, sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., caused quite a stir when it was introduced in February. Concern has been expressed by home gardeners, small organic growers and farmers markets because the bill lacks a definition for "farm production facilities" which would be regulated under the bill. To dispel these claims, Ms. DeLauro, who is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, argued that the bill would ensure the safety of food in interstate commerce and not penalize backyard gardens, organic growers or farmers markets.

"Ms. DeLauro's interest has always been on large operations, so it is unlikely she would try to hamper smaller operations or send inspectors to your backyard. What this has done, though, is to improve the food safety dialogue as more voices are heard," Mr. Rolph says. "The level of interest in food safety legislation shot up with H.R. 875, but it is important to note that while this bill has received quite a bit of attention, it is just one piece of the puzzle."

H.R. 875 would move the food safety functions of the current Food and Drug Administration into a separate and enlarged agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, calling it the Food Safety Administration. In addition, Ms. DeLauro's bill would give the new Food Safety Administration the authority to visit domestic and foreign food production facilities to verify good practice standards, mandating the facility to provide access to on-site records.

"Some in Congress think a new agency will solve the problem," Mr. Rolph says. "Fifteen agencies currently administer 30 food safety laws, and this bill wouldn't combine these agencies under one roof, but would increase the rules and regulations currently administered by the FDA."

Other provisions in the bill include new inspection program guidelines, expansion of food-borne illness surveillance systems, establishment of a national traceability system for food, establishment of a national public education program on food safety, an increase in focus on food safety research and additional penalties for violations of food safety laws.

The DeLauro bill will not be signed into law, Mr. Rolph predicts, but House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, plans to fold parts of it into his broader package.

Mr. Rolph says the bill to watch is H.R. 759, the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act, drafted by the senior member of Waxman's committee, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. H.R. 759 requires that traceability back to the farm of origin be a required part of the nation's food safety system. The bill also includes requirements for country-of-origin labeling and measures that could impact trade relationships.

In an attempt to minimize the risk of food-borne illness incidences, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, has introduced H.R. 1332, the Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act (the Safe FEAST Act). This legislation proposes to modernize the nation's food safety net by placing new mandatory food safety requirements on farm and food companies, domestically and abroad, to identify and prevent potential sources of food-borne illness. This bill strengthens the relationship between federal and state agencies to better control food safety threats and also gives FDA new powers to recall contaminated food in the case of adulteration.

"While the congressman feels that we have the safest food imaginable in our nation, there have been times when Americans have lost confidence in their food system. There have been hiccups in the system and that is a concern to him," says Bret Rumbeck, Mr. Costa's press secretary.

Mr. Costa has been working on the issue of food safety for well over a year, Mr. Rumbeck says, and this is incredibly important to the congressman, especially representing a district that is a leader in agriculture and food production. With Mr. Costa's bill, traceability is key.

"The Safe FEAST Act is going to be able to quickly trace where a lot of these issues may originate. With some of these recent incidences, they've had trouble pinpointing whether it was jalapeños or tomatoes, whether it was X company or Y company, or whether it was at the field or the processing plant. This streamlines it a little bit," Mr. Rumbeck says.

Mr. Costa's bill is virtually identical to Senate 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

Outside of efforts by Congress, the Obama administration is also weighing in on food safety reform. In mid-March, President Obama devoted his weekly radio address to food safety reform when he announced the establishment of a Food Safety Working Group. The Working Group, made up of top agency officials, is charged with developing an improved food safety system.

(About the writer: Christine Souza is an assistant editor with AgAlert, a publication of the California Farm Bureau Federation, where this article originally appeared. It is used with permission.)

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