The House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously passed legislation yesterday that would increase government oversight of the U.S. food supply and, if the measure passes in the House, it will be the most sweeping reform of the food safety system in nearly 50 years. The House of Representatives is expected to decide on the bill before the July 4 recess.
“But FDA will not be the only cop on the beat,” said the committee chair, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who introduced the bill. “One of the most important changes that will occur under this bill is a new focus on prevention, and a shared responsibility between FDA and food manufacturers to keep the food supply safe.”
The food safety bill contains several provisions that will benefit consumers, including:
· Inspections of high-risk food facilities at least every 6-12 months as well as inspection of lower-risk facilities at least once every 3 years (FDA currently averages inspections once every ten years). The schedule for high-risk facility inspection is an improvement over previous versions of the bill.
· A requirement that says, after a period of information gathering and study, FDA will be able to require high-risk food facilities to submit the results of testing their finished food products for safety.
· A requirement that all registered domestic and foreign food facilities identify hazards and implement steps to prevent or reduce contaminants that may appear in food.
· A requirement that businesses keep basic safety records in a standard format so they are easier for FDA to review.
· Authority for FDA to order a recall if a company fails to do so when requested.
· A requirement that food facilities selling to American consumers register with the FDA and pay annual fees.
· A requirement that FDA gather information and run a pilot project to set up a method to trace food back to its source in the case of contamination. Such a “traceback” system will have to allow FDA to trace food back to its source within two business days, a power which was clearly lacking at the agency during last year’s salmonella outbreak with peppers.
The bill also includes a requirement that FDA take another look at the scientific data on the safety of bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic additive that appears in many food and beverage containers. Many believe there is sufficient scientific justification for an immediate ban on BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and other baby food containers. (We’ve reported about BPA here.)
As the legislation moves forward, Consumers Union is urging Congress to return to the legislation two strong provisions in previous versions of the bill: meaningful civil penalties to deter wrongdoers, and language protecting strong state food safety laws—like that passed in Georgia regarding safety inspections and testing—that provide even higher protections to consumers.
The meat industry, including pork, beef, and other agricultural interests, are claiming victory: according to the Wall Street Journal, they enlisted lawmakers on the House Agriculture Committee to help make the case that they should be exempt from FDA food-safety rules since they are already regulated by the USDA.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said it was largely pleased with the bill after Democrats agreed to a number of changes, including halving the registration fee to $500 from $1,000 and adding a charge limit of $175,000. The legislation also would give companies flexibility in developing anti-contamination programs in lieu of strictly following FDA directives. Though produce industry associations have not endorsed the bill, leading industry lobbyists said the Committee listened to their concerns and made changes to the legislation before passing it out of committee.
Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said, “We hope that the legislation moves to the House floor quickly and the Senate passes a strong bill so a final package can be sent to the President soon. Congress needs to act before we discover another food contamination that takes consumers’ lives.”
Meanwhile, the Senate has yet to take up food safety legislation. The Senate could take up the House bill or start with the framework of a Senate bill offered by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill). The timetable for the Senate could also depend on how quickly health care reform legislation clears committee.
And, as Elanor Starmer over at Ethicurean rightly noted, there are also a lot of questions still to be answered, particularly around what the bill will mean for small food processors. (And, according to her, before you even ask, no – the bill would not regulate your backyard tomatoes.) See more background on produce standards, namely what Congress should avoid, in this post.) Elanor points us to Russell Libby of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), who does an eloquent roundup of the small farm wins and still-to-be-wons in the bill here.