The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health yesterday approved the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, sending the bill to the full committee for a vote expected next week.
The legislation is set to increase the authority and funding of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and at yesterday’s markup, Democrats agreed to halve the registration fee all food producers (domestic and foreign) would have to pay from the proposed amount of $1,000 to $500. The $1,000 charge, which had been supported by new FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, would have generated an estimated $378 million—money Democratic lawmakers said would go toward increasing plant inspections and other food safety activities.
Also during markup, industry, which raised objections to fees in the past, will have a say through public hearings on how the FDA should spend the money. Democrats also agreed to ask the FDA to first study how the industry should maintain records, and the costs and benefits associated with it, reported the Wall Street Journal. “Serious, substantive progress has been made,” Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s ranking Republican, told the Journal. Still, he said, Republicans will work to change some provisions of the legislation.
After years of an underfunded and overstretched agency and countless food safety lapses—including record recalls of contaminated spinach, peppers and peanut butter—the Act goes a long way by requiring high risk facilities to be inspected at least every 6-18 months (currently facilities are inspected once a decade on average); providing FDA with mandatory recall authority, which the agency currently lacks; and requiring electronic traceability systems that are able to track identified contaminated food back to its source.
Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said the bill gives FDA the authority it needs to help keep unsafe foods off store shelves and out of consumers’ homes. “We’re pleased that the bill is moving forward,” Gadhia said. “We would have preferred that the current bill contain a higher registration fee to provide more funding for FDA oversight, but we’re hopeful that the full committee will approve the bill soon without watering down the strong protections it provides consumers.”
Consumers Union is also asking lawmakers to consider making the bill stronger by adding a provision to require testing and reporting for contaminants to the FDA, the critical need for which was highlighted by the recent case of Peanut Corporation of America, which, in 12 different instances, found salmonella in its peanut butter and continued to ship deadly peanut products without being required to report known contamination.
With the fee issue now negotiated, hold on for a bumpy week of wrangling. As Tom Laskawy noted over at Grist, Big Meat has expressed their displeasure with the bill, especially with the potential for FDA regulation over meat and poultry, both of which are currently regulated by USDA. The American Meat Institute has also expressed concerned with the inspection schedule and the empowerment of FDA to mandate a recall and impose civil penalties
Most interestingly, the markup and vote on the Act take place just as Food, Inc., reviewed on this site here and here, opens this Friday in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (it opens in other cities 6/19). In addition to exposing the underbelly of corporate agribusiness, the film takes aim at Big Ag for food safety failures, and brings these issues to the silver screen and, hopefully, to the American kitchen table.
This is your Act, so between now and next week, you can do a lot by calling on lawmakers on the Committee to maintain the strong provisions in the bill.